Freshman Devin Taylor, batting third in Indiana baseball's lineup, uppercut the first pitch in his third-inning at-bat, launching the ball 427 feet over the fence. Indiana went up 3-0 in the second game of Sunday's home doubleheader against Ohio State.
Following Indiana's comeback wins 14-6 Saturday, and 9-6 in the first game of Sunday's doubleheader, that three-run inning with Taylor's home run marked the first time Indiana led first in the three-game series. And yet, Indiana head coach Jeff Mercer knew the three-run lead likely wouldn't hold. After all, Indiana had come from behind to win the first two games.
Indiana sophomore infielder Brock Tibbitts even said no lead is safe after the team scored 14 unanswered runs in Saturday's series-opening victory. Mercer tasked the team to add more. Indiana's first four batters reached base in the fifth inning, including run-scoring doubles hit by senior outfielder Hunter Jessee and sophomore infielder Josh Pyne. Indiana went up 6-1.
That lead held. Indiana hung on 7-5 in the finale, securing the three-game sweep.
"You have to know when winning time is," Mercer said postgame. "It was time to win the game. You had the right guys coming up... we'd seen (Ohio State starter Justin Eckhardt). It was the third time through the lineup, and I just challenged them."
Junior outfielder Bobby Whalen began Indiana's fifth-inning rally, knocking his second base-hit of the finale. Whalen batted eighth in the lineup, and Jessee, who drove in Whalen via double, batted ninth.
According to Mercer, assistant coach Derek Simmons recently suggested positioning Whalen and Jessee in the final third of the lineup. In the second game Sunday, the pair combined to score four times. That's more than half of Indiana's seven runs in the victory.
"I've had several coaches come up to me and just like, ‘golly, you guys can really hit, it's so tough,’" Mercer said. "There's just there's nowhere to go for like ‘okay, we're past the seventh spot’. It's like ‘okay, now we're gonna get two outs and get the leadoff guy up’. Actually, (Whalen and Jessee) hit one-two (in the lineup) last year so we're in a really good spot."
Batting in the seventh spot, senior catcher Matthew Ellis remained in the final third of Indiana's lineup throughout the entire three-game series. Ellis hit a solo home run to put Indiana up 10-6 in the team's 14-6 series-opening victory.
That home run maintained Indiana's surging offense. Yet, Ellis' home run in the second game of the series Sunday morning was far more impactful. Just as Ohio State went up 6-5 in the top of the seventh, Ellis crushed a go-ahead three-run home run 452 feet in the bottom frame — the decider in the series-clinching victory.
“Me, Hunter, and Bobby, these older guys toward the bottom… we're going to be the best 6-7-8, 7-8-9 that we can,” Ellis said. “If we move up or move down it's no different. We can bat fourth or we can bat eighth. We're gonna go out there and give the best that we can.”
Mercer praised Whalen and Jessee for assuming roles that are perhaps unorthodox. Last season, Whalen and Jessee commonly nestled in the first third of the lineup. With so many productive bats, it can be difficult for Mercer to decide where players are placed in the lineup. The sweep proves that the final third of Ellis, Whalen and Jessee can be effective.
Ellis' go-ahead home run can be viewed as the decider in the series-clinching victory. So can the fifth-inning rally in the finale, started by Whalen and Jessee's leadoff hits. One also can't forget the pitching staff held Ohio State to six runs or fewer in each game — Mercer's goal.
Graduate Gabe Levy and sophomore Ryan Kraft combined to pitch eight innings, allowing just one earned run in the series opener. Senior Craig Yoho hurled just over two scoreless innings to wrap up Sunday morning's victory. In the evening, sophomore Luke Hayden — who hasn't appeared since March 5 — tossed just over the final three innings to earn his first save.
Following the three-game sweep over Ohio State, Indiana improves to 14-0 at home, 17-7 overall and 3-0 in conference play. The team's eight-game homestand will conclude in one game against Kent State University at 6 p.m. this Tuesday.