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Monday, June 17
The Indiana Daily Student

sports baseball

Indiana baseball wants pitchers to ‘play the bad guy.’ They did against Middle Tennessee.

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He jokingly attributed his stress to tirelessly looking at weather forecasts, but there was no humor in how Indiana baseball head coach Jeff Mercer felt Tuesday afternoon. 

Before the Hoosiers defeated Middle Tennessee State University 12-5 at Bart Kaufman Field, he was agitated. Mercer — more than anyone — knows Indiana’s recent results have been substandard. 

Prior to the game, Mercer had a "candid" conversation with the club. The pitching staff, which holds a Big Ten-worst 7.33 ERA, responded in a major way against the Blue Raiders. 

“It was time for us to start seeing some better stuff,” Mercer said postgame. “And we did. I really challenged them like I haven’t all year.” 

Indiana’s five pitchers combined for a whopping 18 strikeouts and gave up eight total hits. Middle Tennessee benefited greatly from weak contact and a couple errors from the Hoosiers’ defense, and the aura of the staff seemed more confident. 

Since Feb. 27, Indiana has surrendered five or less runs in a game three times including Tuesday night. From starters to closers to long relievers, the Hoosiers’ arms were getting beat often, regardless of the velocity or pitch mixes they offer. 

Against the Blue Raiders, graduate righty and Illinois transfer Ty Rybarczyk started the game and worked three perfect innings while striking out four in the process. Rybarczyk gave up four hits and a pair of runs in the top of the fourth, and Mercer said he should have made a pitching change after the third inning. 

Still, Rybarczyk, who pitched just three total innings this season prior to Tuesday night, was devastating batters primarily by way of his off-speed pitches. He credited it to a distinct mindset.

T3 | Another K for Rybarczyk. ?@Ty6Ryan | #IUBase pic.twitter.com/7Kc1pwlyO0

“Just don’t be soft,” Rybarczyk said. “Get out there and compete with your best stuff. I feel like we did a pretty good job of that tonight.” 

After Rybarczyk, graduate righty Drew Buhr, sophomore Ethan Phillips and graduate southpaw Ty Bothwell combined for 3 2/3 combined frames and surrendered three hits, two runs and struck out eight as a trio. 

It’s not as if Indiana benefited from noticeably inferior competition. Middle Tennessee bats .310 as a team and has mashed 26 homers this season but failed to generate consistent at-bats against the Hoosiers’ hurlers. 

One after the next, each pitcher out of the bullpen was locating and commanding the strike zone with authority. There’s a difference between throwing strikes consistently and attacking hitters with elite execution, Mercer said. 

“That’s what attack means,” Mercer said. “Attack doesn’t mean throw it in the middle of the plate and hope it in there. Attack means throw your best stuff on this half or on that half. And if it runs in the middle at 94, you’re probably okay.” 

Indiana sophomore Brayden Risedorph, who closed out the final two innings and earned his first save of the season, exemplified that. He gave up one hit, didn’t issue a walk and threw 21 of his 26 pitches for strikes. 

In that span, Risedorph logged a season-high tying six strikeouts. His fastball whisked into the zone with authority — touching 94 miles per hour — and his slider befuddled hitters as a change-of-pace offering. 

Risedorph has operated much better coming out of the bullpen as opposed to starting. In his first four starts, Risedorph surrendered 14 runs and gave up four or more in three games. And in four appearances out of the bullpen, he’s only given up more than a run once. 

Mercer said some players operate better with adrenaline and not knowing when they’ll be put into a game. He said in his time as an assistant at Wright State University, head coach Greg Lovelady would sometimes give pitchers just an hour notice to let them know they were starting. 

By doing so, they couldn’t let the nerves build up for hours, or days, in anticipation of a start. 

“I think he’s better in the fight,” Mercer said of Risedorph. “You’re in the game, you’re in the fight, empty the tank, throw your best bullet until you’re out of them — some guys work better like that. He’s a big country kid, and he likes to be in the fight.” 

While most of the damage this season against Indiana pitchers has come in quick spurts rather than complete game blowups, the woes on the mound are well documented. In addition to the team’s ERA, Indiana has given up the third most hits in the Big Ten with 239.

RelatedCOLUMN: Indiana baseball is teetering on the precipice of a lost season Indiana has already lost more home games this season (7) than last season (4).

Many of the issues have stemmed from a lack of control and pitch execution simply not being up to par, but a lack of aggression was all too prevalent as well, Mercer said. 

“You have to just get sick and tired of tiptoeing around ballgames and feeling your way through it,” Mercer said. 

Against Middle Tennessee, the Hoosiers appeared all but fed up with that passivity. Now 13-12 on the season, Mercer acknowledges the team’s path to the postseason is narrow. 

But for a game, Indiana’s arms were ferocious. They think it can spark a wave of positive performances in the future. 

“It starts with an attitude,” Mercer said. “Go play a villain, man. Go start kicking somebody’s butt, and then play the bad guy.” 

Follow reporters Matt Press (@MattPress23) and Nick Rodecap (@nickrodecap) for updates throughout the Indiana baseball season.

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