Hot on the heels of an eight-game winning streak, the 18-7 Indiana baseball team will visit Penn State for a three-game series this weekend. The Hoosiers swept Ohio State to open conference play while the Nittany Lions were swept by Michigan in their opening Big Ten tilt. Indiana has won 13 of its last 14 games while Penn State currently holds a 13-8 record.
This year’s series marks the first time since 2015 that Indiana has made the trek to State College. Given that both sides’ current players were in middle school then, the landscape of Big Ten baseball has changed considerably. This season, Penn State is led by a handful of talented batsmen, including graduate catcher Thomas Bramley and junior infielder Jay Harry.
Bramley leads the team with a .325 batting average, and Harry is in a three-way tie for second with a .310 average. Harry leads the team with 12 extra-base hits, four of which are home runs.
Senior outfielder Tayven Kelly is an offensive threat with seven doubles, tied with Harry for first on the team. Junior infielder Kyle Hannon is another one to watch as he leads the team in home runs with five and regularly hits for extra bases.
Indiana’s only confirmed starting pitcher for the three-game slate is sophomore righty Luke Sinnard, who head coach Jeff Mercer said will start the middle game of the series Saturday.
“He’s been terrific,” Mercer said of Sinnard Wednesday afternoon.
Mercer said Sinnard’s success as a starter has allowed the team to save some of its bullpen arms for other games.
Redshirt junior outfielder Bobby Whalen said the team feels confident regardless of who is on the bump, whether it is Sinnard or any other member of the pitching staff.
“Top to bottom, we feel confident that they’re going to give us a chance to win,” Whalen said. “That’s all we asked from them, and that’s all they’ve done this year."
Freshmen Brayden Risedorph and Evan Whiteaker, as well as graduate Gabe Levy, are in the conversation for the series opener on Friday, and Mercer also said junior right-hander Seti Manase is a potential Sunday starter.
As far as bullpen pieces go, Mercer said sophomore southpaw Ryan Kraft and redshirt senior Craig Yoho have been unexpected surprises in the back end of the bullpen so far this season.
“We didn’t know we were going to get that,” Mercer said.
Yoho was previously a position player, and Kraft’s numbers did not stand out a year ago, yet they have emerged as shutdown late-inning pitchers for Indiana.
Another pitcher who has emerged at the back end of the staff is sophomore right-hander Luke Hayden. Mercer said Hayden could potentially serve as a third closer alongside Yoho and Kraft.
In a three-game series, that depth could be a difference-maker.
“If we can do something like that, we’d really be in business,” Mercer said.
He said Sinnard’s ability to go five or more innings into a game has allowed the late-inning pitchers to re-establish their roles.
With bullpen arms like graduate righty Steven Miller, senior southpaw Jordan Morales and team ERA leader Jaden Henline, the Nittany Lions appear to be a team with more back-end pitching depth compared to Ohio State, which relied heavily on starting pitching.
Mercer said despite these differing pitching philosophies, Indiana’s offensive gameplan remains unchanged.
“For us to be successful, you need to get the starter out as quickly as you can,” he said.
Mercer said scoring runs in the fourth and fifth innings is paramount to success, as these innings are often the final frames before a likely call to the bullpen.
“You can’t afford to give away moments where you can score multiple runs in an inning,” he said. “If you score three runs twice in a game, you have a great chance to win that game.”
The Hoosiers have done a little bit of everything during their eight-game winning streak – they have scored double-digit runs three times, but every game with a single-digit run total has been won by three runs or fewer.
Whalen said despite the Hoosiers’ current form, everything starts anew this weekend.
“We’re going back to zero,” he said on Wednesday. “We treat every game like it’s our first game of the year, and we have the same energy no matter who we’re playing. We’re 0 and 0, and we’re just playing for each other.”
On the offensive side, Whalen said the Hoosier bats tend to feed off senior shortstop Phillip Glasser, who has flourished in the leadoff spot this season.
“It’s contagious,” Whalen said. “When Phil does it at the top, you look, and you have confidence because of how well he did.”
Whalen said Glasser’s role as a catalyst has promoted a selfless run-scoring mentality. A point of emphasis throughout the early part of the season has been the fact that there are 12 Indiana hitters who can thrive anywhere in the lineup.
“We just want to score runs, and no matter where that comes from, we’re happy,” Whalen said.
A lot of Indiana’s runs have come from freshman outfielder Devin Taylor. The two-time reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Week, Taylor has been approached cautiously by opposing pitchers.
“He’s getting pitched like a 22-year-old man at 19,” Mercer said. “That’s frustrating, especially for a young guy.”
Mercer said when Indiana forces pitchers into the strike zone and trusts hitters up and down the lineup, they are engaged in winning baseball.
“We just need to be in a place where we’re prepared to have success,” he said.
Mercer noted the payoff of playing on the road against teams like Auburn and Texas to begin the season, citing the value of true road games as opposed to neutral-site matchups.
“You get to feel what it’s like to play against another crowd,” he said. “Going on the road, (we're experienced) with that. We’ve played in (those) environments. They know what to do now. Just go do it. Just show up and do your job.”
Indiana kicks off the series against Penn State at 6 p.m. on Friday, followed by a 1 p.m. first pitch on Saturday and a midday matinee at noon on Sunday. All three games will be available for viewing on B1G+.