Last summer was supposed to be Gabe Bierman’s best opportunity to show off for big league scouts. Early in his sophomore year, he learned that he would have a roster spot in the Cape Cod League, the most prestigious of the college-age, wooden-bat summer leagues, which meant he’d be pitching against some of the nation’s best hitters and judged against some of its best pitchers.
But of course, there would be no Cape Cod League in the summer of 2020 because thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, there wasn’t much of anything going on in the summer of 2020. The pandemic hit in March and cancelled most of his sophomore season as well, which was particularly disheartening for Bierman because he started the year with a 2-1 record, a 2.45 ERA and 24 strikeouts in 22 innings. He was facing the possibility of losing an entire year in a period when it’s most important for a college player to be seen by scouts.
But his fellow Indiana pitcher McCade Brown had a place for him to play. Brown is from Normal, Ill., which has a team called the Normal Cornbelters that usually plays in the Prospect League, another college wooden bat league in the Midwest. The Prospect League cancelled its season, but the Cornbelters joined with three other teams from central Illinois who still wanted to play to form the Kernel Collegiate League. Players had to be local and Bierman is from Jeffersonville, Ind., but Brown’s parents took Bierman in for the summer in spite of the pandemic. He and Brown each got one start per week, and scouts didn’t have a lot of other places to go so they were there for every start.
“It meant the world to me,” Bierman said. “I had dreamed of playing baseball in the Cape Cod League. That’s where all the top competition is. I wanted to show my true talent. … But getting the opportunity to play in Normal, that was a blessing to me. McCade Brown’s family took me in. They took care of me every day. I got to get all my work in. That’s one of the reasons I’ve gotten where I am today.”
Bierman was speaking Monday, hours after he had been taken in the seventh round of the Major League Baseball draft by the Miami Marlins. Earlier in the day, Brown was taken in the third round by the Colorado Rockies. Later, reliever Matt Litwicki and left-hander Tommy Sommer were taken in the 10th round by the Boston Red Sox and Chicago White Sox respectively. Sommer, Brown and Bierman made up the weekend starting rotation for the 2021 Hoosiers, who failed to make the NCAA Tournament but led the Big Ten in earned run average by a considerable margin at 3.17.
It was fitting for them all the drafted in one day, Bierman said, because the pitching staff has been so close, particularly the starting rotation. Brown and Bierman are extremely close, but the bond extends to the rest of Indiana’s hurlers as well, including the ones that will stay on with these four almost certain to pursue professional baseball.
“It’s crazy,” Bierman said. “A lot of our older guys. I’m just so proud of them. As a team, we bonded a lot. We learned a lot from each other. We’re all different guys, so we could all learn something different from each other. I think that’s what makes it special.”
Brown and Bierman both went into Monday expecting to be taken and watched the draft tracker anxiously with family in friends at their homes to visit. Brown, who was taken No. 79 overall, became the highest drafted Indiana pitcher since 2009 when right-hander Eric Arnett and left-hander Matt Bashore were taken in the first round.
“Coming into today, I was told to expect to be taken between the second and fourth round,” Brown said. “Early third is kind of right in the middle of that, so I guess they were spot on. Was sitting there at the end of the second round, being a little anxious, but my draft advisor told me to keep an eye on the Rockies’ pick. It seemed like they were pretty interested. … There was a lot of excitement and also a little bit of relief to have that off the shoulders now.”
Brown always seemed to be the most obvious MLB target among the pitchers. At 6-foot-6, he has the most projectable frame, and he was also the best of the group at missing bats. His fastball hits the high-90s and he has a slider and a curveball he can throw into the mix. He finished ninth in the Big Ten in ERA (3.39), fifth in strikeouts (97) and first in opponent’s batting average (.164).
“McCade had so much potential,” Bierman said. “I had a lot of confidence in McCade. I told him, ‘You’re literally the big dog. You’re going to be big time one day.’ He took that and ran with it and I’m proud of him.”
At 6-2 with velocity in the low 90s, Bierman didn’t have quite Brown’s measurables, but he can throw four pitches for strikes and arguably had the most professional approach of any of Indiana’s hurlers. He finished second in the Big Ten with a 2.68 ERA and 11th in the league in strikeouts with 80. That caught the eye of the Marlins, who were one of the teams that sent scouts to the Kernel Collegiate League and stuck with Bierman throughout the summer and into the spring season.
“They just told me I’m a special kid,” Bierman said. “I’m here to prove that I’m what they want. I learned a lot in three years at Indiana. Just to learn how to pitch and to be a dog. To be 100 percent in, to be competitive, to learn 10 times more than I did from high school.”
Litwicki was drafted in spite of losing the 2018 season and some of 2019 to Tommy John surgery and pitching a combined 31 1/3 innings in his career. Sommer, the Hoosiers’ Friday night starter, had late season struggles but still struck out 85 batters and won six games.
Now all four get to move on to professional baseball. The path is somewhat different than it was before COVID, as minor league baseball has been restructured with fewer teams and a later draft that means a shorter first professional season. But they will be rooting each other on as they each begin.
“They’re competitive, they’re dogs on the mound,” Bierman said. “They have what it takes, 100 percent. I think they know that, 100 percent, truly. I love them so much and I couldn’t thank them enough for all the things we’ve been though.”
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