After five straight losses, Indiana baseball on the brink of missing NCAA Tournament

Jeff Mercer saw a more fight in the batter’s box Sunday evening than he did Saturday. There was more hard contact, more advancing of runners, and a superior overall offensive approach from the Indiana hitters.

“I did feel like we were better today,” the Indiana baseball coach said.

But the Hoosiers still didn’t score any more runs.

Indiana lost 3-1 to Ohio State on Sunday after losing 3-1 to Nebraska on Saturday night, continuing a losing streak that now stands at five games. Nebraska has clinched the Big Ten regular season championship — and there is no conference tournament this year, so it’s the only Big Ten championship — and the Hoosiers have dropped all the way to fourth place in the conference at 24-16 with four games remaining on their schedule.

Their NCAA Tournament hopes, which seemed safe just over a week ago, are in desperate jeopardy now. Prior to their May 14-16 series at Michigan, they were ranked in the Top 25s of Baseball America and several other services, but they fell out after dropping two of three in Ann Arbor and will be nowhere near consideration after this week. The Ratings Power Index (RPI) is skewed against Big Ten teams this year because the league decided to only play conference games due to the pandemic, but even considering that, the Hoosiers’ number is still early. They were No. 111 to start Saturday and were bound to fall even further.

The reason the Hoosiers have fallen so far so fast is their offense has sputtered. They have scored a combined 10 runs in their five straight losses. They have a combined 13 in the six defeats they’ve taken in their last seven games, and they’ve been held to one run in three of those games.

Ohio State right-hander Garrett Burhenn chalked up 11 strikeouts and scattered seven hits in a complete game win  Sunday after Nebraska’s Chance Hroc struck out 10 and gave up just three hits in a complete-game win on Saturday. Indiana managed five runs on 11 hits in Friday night’s loss to Nebraska, but struck out 10 times against Nebraska’s four pitchers in that game.

The Hoosiers have been in a stage of regression for most of the month of May. They scored 39 runs in three games against Minnesota April 23-25 and 29 in three games against Iowa April 30-May 2 scoring double figure runs in three of those six games. In the 11 games since, they’ve cracked double figures just once and been held to five runs or fewer eight times. They scored 13 wins in their win over Michigan on May 15 but scored a combined 36 runs in the other 10 games.

“They’re good kids and they’re working hard at it and you can feel them kind of press a little bit,” Mercer said of his hitters. “Trying really hard to pull their weight and do those things to help us to win. They’ve shown the ability to be good offensively. I think that makes it frustrating to come off a month when we were good offensively and to struggle is frustrating. That begets a little more struggle too.”

Meanwhile the pitching staff that still leads the Big Ten in ERA has come back to Earth just enough to lose two-run games. Left-hander Tommy Sommer broke open a blister on one of his pitching fingers Friday night that led to his early removal. Starters McCade Brown and Gabe Bierman were good but not great on Saturday and Sunday, pitching five innings each and giving up a combined five runs.

The Hoosiers have one more game in this pod on Monday at 6 p.m. against Ohio State, then a three-game series at Maryland, a squad that passed the Hoosiers this weekend and is now in a tie for second in the league with Michigan. Even though an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament is now out of the question, Mercer is trying to remind them that an at-large berth is still possible, but the Hoosiers have to stop their free-fall immediately.

“Once you lose the ability to compete for a Big Ten championship, we’ll say, there’s still a lot for us to compete for,” Mercer said. “There’s still a lot left for us to potentially achieve. We talked about (2019) when we won the Big Ten and Michigan got in late and  went on a big run (to the College World Series finals before losing to Vanderbilt.) They were on the bubble a little bit in the conference tournament. …  We’ve played well enough this year to continue to be in that conversation.”