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Saturday, June 15
The Indiana Daily Student

sports baseball

COLUMN: After falling flat in Omaha, NCAA Tournament bid gives Indiana baseball new life

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OMAHA, Neb. — Despite going 2-0 in its first two Big Ten Tournament games at Charles Schwab Field, No. 3 Indiana baseball showed signs of the same early-season flaws that pushed it to the NCAA Tournament bubble. Those same flaws reappeared in the form of high walk numbers, iffy bullpen performances and inability to score runs against NCAA Tournament-caliber pitching.  

Along with over 10,000 Nebraska fans, these gaffes soured a conference tournament run for a team that represents one of the biggest “what-ifs” in head coach Jeff Mercer’s six-year tenure. Nevertheless, Indiana’s season will continue Friday at Lindsey Nelson Stadium in Knoxville, Tennessee.  

The Hoosiers nearly squandered an 8-1 lead in the final two innings versus No. 6 Purdue on Tuesday, treading water to win the game 8-6 after right-hander Brayden Risedorph induced a double play with the tying run at the plate. Two days later versus No. 7 Ohio State, Indiana ace Connor Foley was shaky, committing a throwing error that allowed two runs to score and appearing noticeably rattled after committing a balk later in the frame.  

The Buckeyes tied the game an inning later, and although Indiana went on to win the game 14-7 after scoring nine runs in the final five innings, the pitching staff did not make things easy on itself.  

In a postseason setting where teams play lots of games in a short timespan, free bases extend innings and run up pitch counts, leading to trouble for teams that lack bullpen depth like Indiana. Three sophomores — Foley, Aydan Decker-Petty and Risedorph — combined for 13 walks and a hit-by-pitch versus Ohio State.  

In the best possible scenario, that means Indiana pitchers threw 53 more pitches than necessary. Decker-Petty walked six batters in three innings, accounting for at least 24 of his 67 pitches. Risedorph, allowed three hits and four walks pitching for the second time in three days.  

He got the final six outs for Indiana, but after throwing just 15 pitches in the ninth against Purdue, he still needed 62 pitches to do so. Ohio State left the bases loaded in each of the final three innings, proving yet again the final line score is deceiving as Indiana tiptoed out of numerous jams. The Buckeyes also did themselves no favors, with second baseman Joseph Mershon and shortstop Henry Kaczmar each committing two fielding errors, leading to four unearned Indiana runs.  

Thankfully for Indiana, its offense looked to be firing on all cylinders. It scored 22 runs on 27 hits in two games, putting together six multi-run innings. The middle of the lineup was producing — outfielder Carter Mathison began the tournament 5-for-8 with 2 RBIs and second baseman Jasen Oliver’s 3-for-4 start included the three-run homer that catalyzed Indiana’s offense versus Purdue.  

Designated hitter Andrew Wiggins’s RBI double in his first at-bat versus Ohio State — the freshman’s first start since April 20 — was a sign that perhaps Indiana's contagious offense had it primed for a shot at its first Big Ten Tournament championship since future Major League Baseball players Kyle Schwarber and Sam Travis led the Hoosiers to glory in 2014. Then, the Hoosiers ran into a buzzsaw.  

Including the regular season, Indiana played five of its final 10 games versus Nebraska. In the first meeting between the two teams, a seven-run ninth inning lifted Indiana to a 10-5 victory over the Huskers in Lincoln. In the following four games, two in Lincoln and two in Omaha, the Huskers averaged just 2.5 runs allowed per game against the Hoosiers. Nebraska outscored Indiana by 13 runs in that span.  

Six of those runs came from Nebraska’s 10-4 victory over Indiana in Game 2 of the Big Ten Tournament semifinal Saturday night, the game that sent Nebraska to the Big Ten Championship.  

Let’s put that on the backburner for a second. Indiana had a chance to send the Huskers back to Lincoln on Saturday morning. Instead of sticking to its gameplan against a pitcher with a 5.62 ERA and .315 batting average against in nearly 50 innings this season, Indiana made weak contact early in the count numerous times as redshirt sophomore Nebraska starting pitcher Will Walsh carved up the Hoosiers’ bats. He pitched a complete game, holding Indiana to one run and three hits in the final seven frames after stranding the bases loaded in the second inning.  

It was Walsh’s first outing of the season longer than six innings and his second career complete game at the Big Ten Tournament. Husker catcher Josh Caron had all four of his squad’s RBIs in Game 1 versus Indiana, clobbering a pair of homers over 430 feet in the 4-2 Nebraska win.  

It’s not like he struck twice off one pitcher either — Caron homered off sixth-year southpaw Ty Bothwell and graduate righty Drew Buhr, both of whom are closing out their college careers. After the elimination game loss Saturday, Mercer emphasized how important it was for Indiana to win Game 1 and not give Nebraska a chance in Game 2.  

The bullpen, having never established depth during the regular season, was stretched even thinner after neither Bothwell nor Foley pitched longer than four innings in their starts versus Purdue and Ohio State on Tuesday and Thursday, respectively.  

Bothwell and Buhr did their jobs against the Huskers on Saturday morning. They held Nebraska to four runs on six hits, walking just one batter and striking out 11. Bothwell fanned nine in 4.1 innings, perhaps pitching more freely knowing his career could end if Indiana did not win the tournament.  

While two of Indiana’s most experienced arms kept it within striking distance, the offense seemingly hit the showers early. Contrary to what normally happens in baseball, Walsh pitched better as he faced the Indiana hitters for a second, third and fourth time. If Indiana put the ball in play, it was in the form of weak hits early in the count. After relying heavily on groundouts and flyouts early in the game, Walsh recorded four of his five strikeouts in the final three innings, including the final out of the game.  

Nebraska’s pitching staff is everything Indiana’s isn’t, and it showed in the elimination game Saturday evening: Deep, consistent and reliable. Four of Nebraska’s five pitchers who covered 18 innings against Indiana were making their first appearance of the tournament in the team’s fourth and fifth games in a five-day span. Walsh, Kyle Froelich, Kyle Perry and Casey Daiss all saw their first tournament action on the penultimate day.  

After getting ready to enter the morning game on multiple occasions in case Walsh ran into trouble, Christo shined as Nebraska’s starter in the nightcap. He struck out Mathison as Indiana left the bases loaded in the first inning and stranded a two-out double in the second. Then, for the second time in 12 hours, Nebraska capitalized on Indiana’s missed chances by taking a lead it would not relinquish.  

This time, leadoff man Joshua Overbeek clobbered a three-run double to deep right-center field, scoring runners who reached via two walks and a hit-by-pitch. Indiana drew closer on a single from first baseman Brock Tibbitts. At the end of 2.5 innings, the Hoosiers trailed the Huskers 3-1 despite out-hitting them 5-1. The problem stemmed not from a lack of hits, but a lack of timely hitting. Indiana accumulated six of its 12 runners left on base in the first three innings.  

Caron then answered Tibbitts's RBI single with a solo homer and went on to hit his sixth homer of the tournament in Nebraska’s 2-1 championship victory over No. 8 Penn State on Sunday morning, breaking the tournament record for home runs. Half of those came in Nebraska’s two games against Indiana.  

Much like Walsh earlier in the day, Christo got better as his outing continued. He retired eight Indiana hitters in a row to close his start, including back-to-back 1-2-3 innings in the fourth and the fifth. Nebraska then scored six runs between the fifth and eighth innings to put the game out of reach, punctuated by homers from left fielder Gabe Swansen and first baseman Ben Columbus. Nebraska even quieted Oliver — after the Indiana second baseman put up a 4-for-7, six-RBI start to the tournament, he went 1-for-9 with no RBIs against the Huskers.  

His groundout to Columbus sealed the game for Nebraska after a pair of Indiana runs in the ninth made the scoreline slightly less lopsided. The Huskers, who were on the brink of elimination entering the day, dominated Indiana and sent the Hoosiers home with a 10-4 victory.  

The moral of the story: Nebraska had Indiana’s number. Outside of one blowup inning, Husker pitchers dominated Indiana for the better part of five straight games in a two-week span. Even though Indiana avoided Big Ten Pitcher of the Year Brett Sears and formidable No. 2 starter Mason McConnaughey in the conference tournament, it didn’t matter.  

The Husker bats, though not among the top in the conference, capitalized on strong performances from their deep pitching staff and got big hits when they needed to — something Indiana utterly failed to do in both semifinal games Saturday.  

The Hoosiers, despite solid performances from Bothwell and Buhr, were once again stymied by the Big Ten’s best pitching staff. In game two, starting pitcher Julian Tonghini, Jacob Vogel and Ryan Kraft, the latter of whom was a first team All-Big Ten reliever in 2023, allowed multiple runs. In a vacuum, that’s not extraordinary, but it speaks to a lingering issue that Indiana takes with it to Knoxville. 

Kraft finished the tournament with a 7.03 ERA in 24.1 innings this season, nearly three times higher than his 2.48 ERA in 61.2 innings as a Swiss Army Knife for Indiana last season. Tonghini, a third-year relief pitcher, made his third career start on one of the biggest stages — largely because Indiana never found a third weekend starter during the regular season. Vogel is Indiana’s most dependable freshman arm but he, too, struggled versus Nebraska.  

Like Risedorph, a 2023 Freshman All-American whose 4.47 ERA has ballooned to 7.52 in his sophomore campaign, Kraft markedly regressed after his reliability last season made him a key piece of an Indiana pitching staff that fell one win short of winning the Lexington Regional. Although Risedorph’s innings count decreased less dramatically from 52.1 to 46.2, the precedent is the same.  

Once-dependable pitchers became shaky and, in Kraft’s case, unpitchable in high-leverage spots. Indiana trailed 6-1 when Kraft entered Saturday night’s game and trailed 9-2 when he left, although two of Kraft’s three runs allowed were unearned as Indiana committed two errors in the inning.  

On the first pitch he threw in Tuesday’s tournament opener versus Purdue, Risedorph gave up a three-run homer to Keenan Spence. It brought the Boilermakers within two runs of tying a game in which they trailed by six runs prior to the ninth.  

Spence's home run, his second in as many innings, was perhaps the least shocking thing about Purdue’s comeback attempt. Risedorph allowed just 0.3 home runs per nine innings in his freshman season. This year, he has allowed eight homers in 46.2 innings — 1.5 home runs per nine innings, a fivefold increase. Risedorph allowed six fewer home runs while recording 17 more outs as a freshman. No matter how you slice it, that kind of regression is shocking.  

If these musings about Dustin Glant’s broken pitching staff and free bases sound familiar, that’s because I wrote about it after Indiana lost its home series to eventual regular-season conference champion Illinois to begin Big Ten play in late March.  

It would be extremely short-sighted not to mention the role of injuries in Indiana’s struggles. Indiana lost two high-volume arms before the season began. According to Mercer, single-season strikeout record holder Luke Sinnard and Northwestern transfer Ben Grable were expected to provide around 160 innings of production on the mound this season, but neither of them were healthy on opening day, nor will they be until 2025. Sinnard is likely to be selected in the MLB Draft and may not pitch again for Indiana.  

Indiana expected Lipscomb transfer Matthew Bohnert to be a key bullpen arm, but he too sustained a season-ending injury before pitching in a single game for the Hoosiers. Foley missed time in April with back tightness. Tibbitts, Indiana’s workhorse at catcher and first base, missed all of April with a leg injury and played hobbled in his return May 3-5 at Purdue. Highly touted infielder AJ Shepard, who made his long-awaited Indiana debut after missing 2023 with an injury, sustained an injury on a collision at first base in the third game of the season and has not played since.  

Despite all the injuries and misfortunes, the season will continue for at least another week. After sitting squarely on the at-large bubble, players, coaches and fans undoubtedly breathed a sigh of relief as Indiana received a bid to the Knoxville Regional on Monday afternoon. It is the No. 3 seed, marking the second-consecutive postseason berth for Mercer and Co.  

Indiana will see No.1 overall seed University of Tennessee (50-11), No. 4 seed Northern Kentucky University (35-22) and open the regional against the No. 2 seeded University of Southern Mississippi (41-18). The Hoosiers defeated Northern Kentucky 11-5 in Bloomington on March 6 — their only meeting with any of the three teams this season.  

Adamant that this year’s squad is more postseason-ready than last year’s counterpart, Mercer has a chance to prove it. The Hoosiers face the Southern Miss Golden Eagles at 1 p.m. on Friday to open NCAA Tournament play. 

“We’re one of the best 64 teams in the country,” Mercer said Saturday. “To get to spend another week with (these players) would be very gratifying and fulfilling.”  

After so many unknowns and “what-ifs,” Indiana is playing with house money. The Hoosiers will need quality outings from Bothwell, Buhr, Foley, Decker-Petty and Risedorph to have any chance in the regional. The offense will need to shake off a poor finish in Omaha and turn in quality at-bats with runners on base to string together big innings.  

Southern Miss is fresh off its second-consecutive Sun Belt Tournament Championship. Northern Kentucky won the Horizon League title to clinch its first NCAA Tournament berth since moving to Division-I. Tennessee won the SEC and is considered by many to be the best team in the country, but anything can happen in college baseball, and it usually does.  

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