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Wednesday, June 19
The Indiana Daily Student

sports baseball

COLUMN: Indiana baseball is teetering on the precipice of a lost season

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Baseball is a silly game. Indiana head coach Jeff Mercer says it all the time. Some days, the deck is stacked against your team and there’s nothing you can do. On other days, everything you touch turns to gold. "That's baseball” can be used to justify outliers like a four-error game or blowout loss, but when the anomalies become trends, this dismissive approach no longer works.  

"Groundhog Day” is a 1993 movie that chronicles a weatherman who repeatedly relives the same day. It is also a fitting allegory of Indiana’s first 24 games this season. After winning six of seven games to start the season, Indiana found itself ranked as high as No. 20 in the D1Baseball Top 25. Since that scorching-hot start that included a true road win over No. 18 Coastal Carolina University, the Hoosiers have lost 11 of their last 17 games and limped into Big Ten play following a 15-7 shellacking at Indiana State University on Tuesday.  

Indiana opened conference play with a lopsided series loss versus Illinois. The lone bright spot was a career-best outing from sophomore right-handed pitcher and MLB Draft prospect Connor Foley, whose career day kept the Hoosiers from being swept for just the second time in 10+ years at Bart Kaufman Field.

RelatedConnor Foley twirls career game in Indiana baseball’s series-tying win over Illinois Foley punched out a career-high 10 batters in Saturday’s victory.

The only team to ever sweep Indiana in its own house is Maryland’s high-flying 2023 squad, which won the Big Ten regular season and tournament titles behind head coach Rob Vaughn and eventual MLB draftee Matt Shaw. Three of Indiana’s four home losses last season came on that ugly weekend that all but cemented Maryland’s regular season title.  

The only other home game Indiana lost in 2023 was the series opener versus Iowa. The Hawkeyes, led by ace and projected MLB Draft selection Brody Brecht, dominated Indiana en route to a 7-1 victory. The Hoosiers, as they so often did last season, bounced back emphatically, winning the next two games to take the series.  

After coming within one game of facing eventual College World Series winners Louisiana State University in an NCAA Super Regional last season, hopes were high for the Hoosiers entering 2024.  

Although they lost key pieces like shortstop Phillip Glasser, outfielders Bobby Whalen and Hunter Jessee, starting pitcher Luke Sinnard and relief pitcher Craig Yoho, many expected Indiana to contend at the top of the Big Ten for the second consecutive season. The Hoosiers were picked second behind Iowa in the Big Ten preseason poll. After a near-perfect first two weeks this season, those projections looked justified.

Indiana baseball is rolling. Buy stock now.

This weekend, Devin Taylor led #iubase to a sweep with a 3 HR weekend, raising his OPS to 1.526 (‼️). Morgan Colopy tripled his HR total from 2023, including a salami and 5 RBIs today. More for @ids_sports: https://t.co/MIwyKBK5uc

Immediately following this X post, Indiana was upset at home by Purdue University Fort Wayne and mercy-ruled twice in three days at the Frisco Classic, including a shutout loss to the Vaughn-led Alabama Crimson Tide. The former Terrapin joined Alabama last offseason after Tide head coach Brad Bohannon was linked to a gambling scandal that ended his six-year tenure.  

In hindsight, there were warning signs against Purdue Fort Wayne, the worst team in the Horizon League a season ago. Indiana trailed the Mastodons 8-0 after 5 ½ innings, largely because its pitching staff could do little to stop the visiting offense. When the teams met in 2023, Indiana won 15-1.  

Pitching depth is at a premium in college baseball, and Mercer has spoken about the troubles caused by injuries to Sinnard and Northwestern transfer Ben Grable, both of whom were expected to turn in high-volume outings for Indiana in 2024.  

“(We lost) Sinnard at the end of last year and Grable a month before the season,” Mercer said March 6. “If we thought we were going to lose 160 innings and not have some guys that have to grow through it, I think we were mistaken.”  

Mercer added, “I assumed that at some point guys were going to have to get in there and grow up. That’s all part of it, that’s not an excuse.”  

Indiana’s head coach continued, saying the best way to promote growth among young Hoosier pitchers is to face tough competition and then find ways for the coaching staff to put those pitchers into the best position to be successful.   

That plan hasn’t come anywhere close to fruition.  

Through 24 games, Indiana holds the Big Ten’s worst team ERA at 7.48. Last year, Indiana’s 5.27 ERA ranked fourth in the conference.  

Indiana has allowed 8.3 runs per game and surrendered double-digit runs on eight occasions. Its average margin of defeat: 7.3 runs. The Hoosiers have allowed an average of 11.6 runs in their 12 losses this year.  

In 63 games last year, Indiana allowed six runs per game and gave up double-digit runs 11 times. The Hoosiers' losses were by an average margin of 5.9 runs and they averaged 9.4 runs allowed per loss.  

I would be remiss not to mention Indiana’s defense, which is more akin to Swiss cheese than anything else at this juncture. The Hoosiers currently hold a conference-worst .961 fielding percentage, meaning an already-thin pitching staff often must work even harder to nullify the mistakes made by the defense.  

Glasser's absence is key here. Indiana lost its starting shortstop of two years to the MLB Draft and sophomore Tyler Cerny took his place. Mercer said Cerny’s defense kept him in the lineup during his freshman campaign, but the difficult transition from second base to shortstop has not been kind to the Greenwood, Indiana, native.  

He has committed 12 of Indiana’s 33 errors, leading to a team-worst .882 fielding percentage. Indiana does not have many other options in its now-inexperienced middle infield, so Cerny will have to grit his teeth during this rough patch. Flashes of highlight-reel glovework and an improved bat ensure he keeps his starting spot.

T3 | Got 'em. @tylerjcerny | #IUBase pic.twitter.com/aJrqwWhyMp

When pitching and defense fail to hold serve, it often results in blowout losses. Across a 20+ game sample size, Indiana is on pace for many more blowout losses than it sustained last season. In 2023, the Hoosiers lost five games by eight or more runs. With less than 50% of its 2024 slate in the books, Indiana has already lost six games by that same margin. 

Home cooking was one of the keys to Indiana’s success in 2023. The Hoosiers posted a 43-20 record, winning 26 of their 30 games at Bart Kaufman Field, good for an .866 winning percentage.  

Approaching the halfway point of this year’s home slate, Indiana is under .500, just 6-7 at home with losses to Purdue Fort Wayne, two in three days versus Troy University, Belmont University and a mercy rule versus Illinois State University. The latest addition to this list is two losses to Illinois in the first weekend of conference play, which include a 15-run, 20-hit performance by the Illini in the series finale.  

After a road-heavy non-conference schedule, Indiana returned to Bloomington, scheduled to play 15 of its next 18 games at home. With five games remaining in this stretch, Indiana is 5-8 overall and 3-7 over its last 10 games.  

Looking at the margins between last season and this season, we can draw a couple of conclusions. First and foremost, Dustin Glant’s pitching staff is broken.  

The transfers aren’t producing as expected. Boston College transfer Julian Tonghini, who posted a sub-4 ERA in 28 ⅓ innings for the Eagles last season, has allowed four runs in three separate outings, although it’s worth noting that on one such occasion, none of those runs were earned. This, again, speaks to how poor Indiana’s defense has been.  

Save for Foley, sophomore righty Ethan Phillips and sixth-year senior southpaw Ty Bothwell, the returners have regressed mightily. Junior lefty Ryan Kraft, who was a jack of all trades last year, has struggled mightily. Expected to be an impact arm out of the bullpen, redshirt sophomore Grant Holderfield has languished in his first outings since 2022.  

Worst of all, sophomore right-hander Brayden Risedorph has fallen off a cliff — the 2023 Freshman All-American has seen his ERA increase more than twofold between last year and this year, and it currently sits north of 10.  

The freshmen are, well, freshmen. Whereas now-sophomores Foley, Phillips and Risedorph stepped up in big spots in their maiden campaigns, Indiana has yet to find the impact arms in its youngest group. That said, it is not exactly a vote of confidence for a young pitcher when the chance of a fielding error looms menacingly over his head.  

Second, I haven’t mentioned the offense because it isn’t the source of the team's problems. Indiana is batting .289 this season and holds a team OPS of .849. It has scored 7.4 runs per game. All these numbers are within four percent of last year’s numbers. The bats are holding up their end of the bargain, but the pitching and defense are continuously faltering.  

If nothing changes, Indiana is in danger of suffering its first losing season since 2022. More importantly, Indiana is at risk of ending its home slate with a losing record for the first time in Bart Kaufman Field history. The last time the Hoosiers finished under .500 at home was 2005, when they went 15-18 at Sembower Field in the final year of head coach Bob Morgan’s 21-year tenure.  

Baseball is a game where momentum is only as good as the next day’s starting pitcher. This axiom works both ways: Indiana could flip a switch, go on a torrid run and eclipse the coveted 40-win mark for the second consecutive year. To do so, it would need to win 28 of the 32 remaining games this season — 87.5%. The remaining schedule is roughly split 50/50 between home and road games.   

It’s not impossible, but time is running out. I’m not inside the locker room or involved in any meetings between Mercer and Glant. All I know is that great coaches adapt.  

Something needs to be done before the Hoosiers deliver one of their flattest seasons in recent memory. It’s up to the 2019 Big Ten Coach of the Year and his assistants to figure out what adjustments must be made.  

Between Foley, sophomore outfielder Devin Taylor, junior infielder Brock Tibbitts and junior outfielder Carter Mathison, Indiana has numerous MLB Draft prospects on this season’s squad. Sinnard, although injured, is also in this group. Don’t forget: He set the program record with 114 strikeouts last year.  

Sinnard, Foley, Tibbitts and Mathison are all draft-eligible this year. Indiana can ill-afford to waste the production of such a talented core. The consequences may be dire.  

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

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