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Tuesday, April 16
The Indiana Daily Student

sports baseball

‘A pretty fun year’: Indiana baseball’s nail-biting victories, NCAA Tournament wins in ahead-of-schedule turnaround

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Ten minutes into the media availability at Bart Kaufman Field, Indiana baseball head coach Jeff Mercer paused when asked about the most cherishable moment with the senior class. It was Thursday, May 11. Senior Day was that coming Saturday against in-state rival Purdue.  

"I don't take that question lightly, so I gotta make sure," Mercer said.  

The third-base suite at the stadium — stocked with framed pictures of baseball movies on the walls and perfect-view seats stuck to the concrete beyond the glass wall to the outdoors — stayed silent for another five seconds. Mercer's "ummm" conveyed his deliberation.  

"I would say early on when we beat Auburn and we beat Texas," Mercer said. "Last year, we struggled early. You're trying to help them to believe that we can play at that level. You go and you win on that stage and you compete. You can see the excitement and the joy in their faces when they realize what they're capable of and what the program and the team is capable of."  

* * * 

Three weeks later, Indiana sophomore infielder Brock Tibbitts sat underneath Kentucky Proud Park in the postgame media availability June 5. Indiana had begun the NCAA Tournament with back-to-back wins for the first time since 2014 — within the program's first NCAA Tournament regional appearance since 2019 — which was Mercer's debut season.  

The Hoosiers were in the Lexington regional, hosted by No. 12 national-seed University of Kentucky. Indiana, however, lost twice in two days to fall in the double-elimination Regional Finals. The Hoosiers needed one more win over Kentucky in two chances to advance to their first Super Regionals since 2013. They lost 16-6 on June 4 and 4-2 on June 5.  

The rush of Monday's postgame questions was directed toward redshirt senior left-hander Ty Bothwell. Not only was the "Hoosier born and raised" Indiana native one of the team's veterans, but he had labored 97 pitches across 5⅓ innings, only allowing four runs to Kentucky's lineup that hit four home runs the previous day. He kept Indiana within comeback distance of the winner-take-all Game 7. Monday was one of Indiana’s rare two-run defeats.  

Questions trickled to players, freshman outfielder Devin Taylor and sophomore Tibbitts.  

"It goes back to the mentorship of the older guys," Tibbitts said. "The belief from the coaching staff, the belief of all the guys and each other to be able to put it all together and win a few more games than last year. It just goes back to the fall. I just felt something special within the locker room. I think we all internally kind of felt it. Just kind of knew that this year was going to be a pretty special one. It sucks to end this way, but I think it's been a pretty fun year." 

* * * 

Indiana started the season by going 2-4 in the first two weekends at Auburn University and the University of Texas, which may have seemed like little improvement from the 1-5 start to 2022. That season, the Hoosiers were swept in three games at Clemson University — outscored 28-4 in the first two games — then walked-off in extra innings. Though Indiana kept the score close with then-No. 2 University of Arkansas at the neutral-site Karbach Round Rock Classic, then-No. 6 Stanford University thrashed the Hoosiers 13-0 in seven innings.  

Indiana was swept four times in 2022. To start 2023, the Hoosiers were competitive in each series at Auburn and Texas — dodging three-game sweeps to an NCAA Tournament host in the Tigers and near College World Series-bound Longhorns — behind newfound right-handed ace, transfer Luke Sinnard, who became the program’s single-season strikeout leader by the NCAA Tournament. Indiana was swept just once in 2023, then won eight straight games.  

* * * 

Comeback victories became Indiana’s hallmark. Not just in-game, but spanning entire weeks or for individual players. Redshirt junior outfielder Morgan Colopy, who eventually entered games in later innings for his fielding, started the year 2-for-23 at the plate. Then, he knocked the go-ahead hit to secure back-to-back comeback wins against Bellarmine University March 10.  

Indiana’s third-ever Big Ten Freshman of the Year, outfielder Devin Taylor — who became an everyday starter right around that same time — knocked the game-tying home run in the ninth inning on March 15 against Morehead State University. That marked the first of four multi-home run games for Taylor, who finished with 16, the third-most by a Big Ten freshman.  

Tibbitts drove in the game-winner in that 10th inning. Indiana was an absurd 20-5 in contests decided by two runs or fewer this season, while also perfectly 3-0 in extra-inning games. Those records were improvements from 10-15 and 1-2, respectively, in the 2022 season.  

In the team’s 2-0 extra-innings win over Iowa April 8, which evened the three-game series, Colopy struck the walk-off home run that bounced off the left-field foul pole. Colopy’s lone home run of the year built what was likely the strongest series victory on Indiana’s resume. The Hoosiers had been nearly shutout the day before, and were shut out four days prior.  

Freshmen pitchers Brayden Risedorph, Connor Foley and Ethan Phillips pitched beyond their years, staying composed in many high-leverage situations. Risedorph and Foley combined for nine saves, while Phillips tossed 4⅔ zero-earned-run innings in the win over then-No. 12 University of Louisville on April 18. Following that outing, Phillips had revealed that he didn’t make the travel roster in the first few weeks of the season to Auburn and Texas.  

Risedorph, Taylor and redshirt senior Craig Yoho were all named Freshman All-Americans by Collegiate Baseball Newspaper. Yoho was injured weeks into his rookie season at the University of Houston in 2019. The 2020 season was canceled due to COVID-19. Once transferring to Indiana, Yoho missed the 2021 and 2022 seasons due to injury. In Yoho’s first complete season, his elevated spin rates on pitches helped strike out 63 batters in 37 innings. The right-hander threw 2⅓ innings in the NCAA Tourney win over Kentucky, allowing one run. 

Fifth-year senior Peter Serruto hit what turned out to be the game-winning, go-ahead, three-run home run in the seventh inning of that game, just his third homer of the season. The catcher had transferred from Rutgers for the 2022 season, hitting .139 in 34 games. When Indiana power-hitting catcher Matthew Ellis was out in the first week of April for the rest of the 2023 season due to an injury, Serruto tirelessly stepped in. Serruto started 49 games at catcher this season, while raising his batting average 130 points in nearly 100-plus at-bats. 

Bothwell didn’t pitch from March 15 to April 4. In his return, he walked four batters in less than two innings. Bothwell returned two weeks later, though was immediately pulled following a six-pitch walk. In the left-hander’s final six outings of the season, spanning from May 10 to the Game 7 at Kentucky, Bothwell threw at least three innings, allowing three runs or fewer.  

* * * 

There were some frustrating moments for Indiana this season. Josh Pyne punched his helmet after an 0-for-5 night in the team’s 17-4 loss at then-No. 9 East Carolina University in March. Indiana was run-ruled by Kentucky in seven innings two weeks later. The Hoosiers were swept by Maryland in three games at home in April — outscored 29-4 in the first two — to fall out of first place in the Big Ten by two games. The Hoosiers lost four of their last six games, including back-to-back losses in the Big Ten Tournament to limp into the NCAA Tournament.  

But they recovered at each stage. At first, against weaker non-conference opponents, but nevertheless games that could’ve been looked through the lens of must-win anyway. Indiana entered the final weekend of the regular season tied in the standings with Big Ten title-favorite Maryland. Indiana’s 26 wins at home were the most in Bart Kaufman Field’s decade-long history. The Hoosiers hit five home runs in the same inning during one home game in March. 

* * * 

Last season, many veterans transferred to Indiana or newly acquired more playing time, like Phillip Glasser, Matthew Ellis, Hunter Jessee and Bobby Whalen. During the 2023 season, Mercer explained that this player-led group was adamant about not repeating 2022’s sub-.500 record that didn’t come close to making the postseason. Midway through the season, Mercer said Glasser and Ellis led by work ethic, while Whalen and Jessee led with their voices.  

The 2023 season was the perfect blend of time, players and personalities in the clubhouse. The veterans mentioned above, along with the 2022 freshmen class, had gained another year of experience and comfort. Meanwhile, the coaching staff brought in another round of prospects that impressed. 

Tibbitts, Pyne and Carter Mathison — who broke and holds Indiana's freshman home run record — were named Freshman All-Americans by Collegiate Baseball Newspaper in 2022, which has now been duplicated in 2023 with three more Hoosiers selected. Mercer has begun the trend of consecutive recruiting classes that have instantly helped the team win games.  

Freshman AJ Shepard was the No. 23 catching prospect in the country, according to Perfect Game, but didn't play this year due to injury. Still, Shepard was always the first — and sometimes the only — player to clean up the bats and baseballs in the batting cages postgame. 2022 Perfect Game All-American outfielder Andrew Wiggins will join the Hoosiers next season. 

Perhaps this year can be thought of as ahead-of-schedule. Nobody believed Indiana would finish second in the Big Ten and reach an NCAA regional final. Now, Indiana has the ability to return the majority of the team’s starting lineup. Three-fourths of the infield with Tibbitts, Pyne and second baseman Tyler Cerny — who made impressive plays and also landed on the exclusive all-time list of Indiana freshman to reach 10 home runs — are likely to return.  

Pitchers such as ace Sinnard, the freshmen arms and sophomore Ryan Kraft can likewise be expected to return. Sophomore right-hander Luke Hayden entered the transfer portal after scattering solid outings this year, though he still could return next season.

Junior right-hander Seti Manase, who usually opened with three or four innings and compiled a season 2.73 earned run average, wasn't on the travel roster in the NCAA Tournament but still would have the eligibility to return to the Hoosiers next year.

Kraft missed two weeks at the end of May, reportedly due to forearm tightness, but started in the 5-3 Tournament win at Kentucky, throwing four one-run innings. Kraft didn't allow an earned run for 30-plus consecutive innings this season, mainly working out of the bullpen.

Indiana would benefit from additional starters on the mound next season. The program lost Jack Perkins and Bradley Brehmer to the 2022 MLB Draft, who usually had the stamina to pitch five to seven innings. Sinnard was the team's lone bonafide starter for the entire duration of the 2023 season, as some pitchers swapped roles between starters and relievers. Sinnard exited in the third inning of Indiana's regional-opening game on June 2, due to an injury.  

Risedorph and Bothwell plugged the gap well that Friday, while Kraft, Yoho and Foley held Kentucky to three runs in the Saturday win, June 3. Barring Hayden, Hoosier pitchers on Sunday, however, plunked nine batters. Risedorph and Bothwell returned Monday and kept Kentucky to four runs, though the bats were unable to covert with runners in scoring position.  The Hoosiers were just one win away from being Super and three away from being Elite.  

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