Baseball teams traditionally field two players on either side of second base — the third baseman and shortstop on the left and the second and first basemen on the right.
However, it's not uncommon to see three fielders to the right of second base when a left-handed hitter comes to the plate. It's known as the shift: when teams strategically place their infielders where batters are statistically most likely to hit the ball.
As Indiana freshman outfielder Carter Mathison walked into the left-handed batter's box in Friday's series opener against Nebraska, Cornhusker infielders gradually jogged into their places to set up for the shift.
Nothing could stop Mathison from bunting down the third baseline, a standard counter to the shift. It only depended on the freshman's confidence to place it well enough to allow enough time to dash to first base. Heading into Friday, Mathison had one bunt for a hit in an earlier series opener this season.
On the second pitch, Mathison laid down a bunt running parallel to the third baseline. As the freshman reached first and signaled he beat the throw, the umpire matched his motion and ruled he was safe.
The tactical decision by Nebraska’s head coach cleared the left side of the team’s infield, making it vulnerable. Mathison took advantage, leading to a base hit that sparked a series-opening win that carried over to a series-clinching victory Saturday with one game in hand.
"Midwest guys normally don't value the bunt," head coach Jeff Mercer said after Friday's game. "Midwest guys (are) big and strong and want to hit homers. (We're) just trying to help them to understand the value of a bunt."
By the numbers, Mercer isn't wrong. Mathison, an Indiana native, had nine home runs on the season entering the weekend, only three behind team-leader junior Matthew Ellis. However, Mercer said he has also talked with Mathison and other players about recognizing such opportunities.
"That was completely on Carter," Mercer said. "If they're going to put a shift on, take your base hit. The goal every day is just (to) get to first base. If you get to first base enough, eventually, somebody on this group is good enough to tag one."
Graduate infielder Tyler Doanes was next up to bat and tripled to right field, propelling Mathison home.
While Mathison rounded second, someone in the stands yelled, "Clear, clear, clear!" in reference to clearing the bases. Doanes’ triple gave Indiana a comfortable 8-4 lead in the bottom of the seventh inning.
Senior reliever Braydon Tucker entered in the ninth inning and despite allowing a three-run home run, struck out the final batter to secure the narrow 8-7 series-opening win.
"I talked to the team, and that was the game-winning run," Mercer said of Mathison crossing the plate following his bunt and Doanes’ triple.
The freshmen trio Mathison, Josh Pyne and Brock Tibbitts batted 6-for-11 combined with six runs batted in.
Indiana clinched the series with an 8-1 victory behind senior Bradley Brehmer's quality start with 11 strikeouts. Mathison hit the lone home run in the game to become the fourth Indiana freshman to reach 10 home runs.
After Nebraska hit 3-for-9 with runners in scoring position in the first game, Indiana pitchers Brehmer, Ty Bothwell and Reese Sharp held the Cornhuskers to 0-for-7 in the same category with only five hits total. Sharp earned his first save of the season.
Though the Hoosiers dropped the finale by a dozen runs, they earned their first conference series win of the year, sparked by a bunt single late in the series opener. They'll look to carry that momentum over in a midweek game against Butler University on Tuesday evening and a three-game home series against Illinois next weekend.