After falling as far back as four games back of the Big Ten lead in early April, the IU baseball team has made a full recovery and retaken the lead in the standings with four weeks left in the season.
In its most important series of the year, IU was equally effective from the plate and the mound as it took two of three games against Iowa this weekend. The Hoosiers are now 8-2 in their last ten games.
In the opener, Iowa benefited from three costly errors committed by the IU defense, scoring three unearned runs in a 6-5 win. IU senior starting pitcher Tommy Sommer also gave up four walks, which led to one of his two earned runs given up.
“If you make them square up and hit and play baseball, they’re a more beatable team,” IU head coach Jeff Mercer said. “But when you give them opportunities like that, they’ll take advantage.”
At the plate, junior Cole Barr reached base three times, including a triple that would eventually tie the game at 1-1 in the second inning. IU had a chance to take the lead in the eighth, as it scored two runs to cut Iowa’s lead to one run. Senior catcher Collin Hopkins, who has been the most improved hitter on the team in recent weeks, flew out deep to left field and ended the inning.
In Saturday’s game, IU was dominant at the plate, scoring eight runs in the first two innings. Barr and sophomore DH Tyler Van Pelt both reached base three times and had two RBIs on the game. Iowa starting pitcher Drew Devine didn’t record an out. He faced six batters and gave up four hits and five runs.
The Hoosiers’ offense has played well recently and provided wins, even when the usually trustworthy starting pitching has had poor starts like sophomore McCade Brown did on Saturday. Brown, who came into the game with the best K/9 and the second-best ERA in the conference, had his worst outing of the season. Brown only got 2.2 innings, giving up five hits, runs and walks.
IU driving Devine from the game early made the contest a duel of bullpen arms that IU ultimately won. Freshman relievers John Modugno and Ty Bothwell picked up the win and the save, respectively, for the Hoosiers. Modugno and Bothwell combined for 6.1 innings, where they only gave up five hits and one run.
“Just show up and coach every player to give you the depth to be able to have a complete bullpen like we do,” Mercer said. “Then you go and trust it in those situations, and they were terrific today, and they have been all season.”
In the Senior Day rubber match Sunday, sophomore ace Gabe Bierman picked up the win for IU. It was the sixth time this season Bierman was able to pitch at least six innings this season.
“Just going out there and being that guy to help us win the series, it's an unbelievable feeling,” Bierman said.
Iowa starter Cam Baumann pitched well through three innings as well, seemingly setting up a pitchers duel, as the game was tied at two entering the bottom of the fourth.
After two strikeouts and a Hopkins double, Baumann was in good position to get out of the inning unscathed. Junior Drew Ashley hit a single and freshman Paul Toetz drove both of them in with a single of his own to retake the lead 4-2. Sophomore Grant Richardson tripled to score Toetz and Barr hit a two-run homer, his team-leading sixth of the year, over the left-center field fence to extend the lead to 7-2.
Iowa would get within two, cutting the lead to 9-7 in the top of the eighth. In the bottom of the eighth, freshman pinch hitter Ethan Vecrumba hit a three-run bomb to right to put the game away for the Hoosiers, who won 12-8.
IU is now 20-9 on the season, leading the Big Ten over Michigan and Nebraska, who have both lost four of their last five games. IU, Nebraska and Rutgers, who swept the Cornhuskers this weekend, will play one another twice each in a pod next weekend in Piscataway, New Jersey. IU was as far back as four games of the conference lead after getting swept by Ohio State the first weekend of April.
“When you have a moment where you lose and falter, you can either roll over and die, or you can pick yourself up off the mat and go back to work,” Mercer said. “When you have moments like that, and you have to get up, you feel like you can do it again and again and again... If you go through and win the series every weekend, you’ll have a chance to win the league.”