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Indiana baseball begins series with Michigan for control of the Big Ten

Two years ago, the last time the college baseball season advanced far enough for conference champions to be crowned, Indiana went into Ann Arbor in mid-May with a chance to lift itself toward the top of the Big Ten standings and succeeded. The Hoosiers took two of three from Michigan and eventually won the conference title by 1/2 game over the Wolverines.

The Wolverines, however, came back with a miraculous month of June. They took advantage of defending national champion Oregon State’s upset losses to Cincinnati and Creighton to claim the Corvallis Regional, then swept No. 1 overall seed UCLA in the Super Regional to become the first Big Ten team since Indiana in 2013 to reach the College World Series. They didn’t stop once they got to Omaha, beating Texas Tech twice and Florida State once to reach the best-of-three CWS Finals where they beat Vanderbilt in Game 1 but lost the next two games to the Commodores. They were still the first Big Ten team to be one of the last two teams standing since Ohio State claimed the national title in 1966.

Flash forward to this season and Indiana and Michigan will meet again in mid-May in Ann Arbor with the inside track to the Big Ten title on the line. The Hoosiers enter in first place with a 23-10 record with Big Ten teams playing only conference games this season out of caution related to COVID-19. Nebraska is 1/2 game behind the Hoosiers at 23-11, but Michigan is one game back at 23-12 and can catapult above Indiana with a series win. The series begins Friday at 4 p.m. and continues Saturday at 2 p.m. and Sunday at 1 p.m. The first two games will be telecast on Big Ten Network Plus and the finale will be on ESPN2.

Nebraska will still be a factor in the race regardless of what happens this weekend because the Cornhuskers have two games against Indiana in Bloomington and three games against Michigan at home to close out the regular season. However, what happens in Michigan will do a lot to determine who wins the conference title and the automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament, as there is no conference tournament this season.

“Any time the Big Ten decides to put Michigan on your schedule in the last couple of weeks, it’s going to have a great impact on the outcome of the season,” Indiana coach Jeff Mercer said earlier this week on a Zoom press conference with reporters posted on YouTube. “We do expect to compete for the Big Ten championship on an annual basis. Whether we win it or not I don’t know, but we expect to compete at that level and I know that Michigan expects to compete at that level as well. You’re going to have two programs with a lot of pride and really high expectations competing at the end of the season with a lot on the line.”

Both teams have had a significant amount of roster turnover since 2019. Of the players who started in Game 1 of the CWS finals for Michigan, only one — outfielder Christian Bullock — is still on the roster. Grant Richardson, Drew Ashley and Cole Barr were all key pieces of that Indiana lineup who are still around, but most of the rest of it has turned over. Indiana’s weekend starting pitchers — Tommy Sommer, McCade Brown and Gabe Bierman, were all occasional weekday starters back in 2019.

“Both of our programs have changed tremendously in that amount of time,” Mercer said. “The players are different but the stakes are the same.”

The 2019 Michigan team was at or near the top of the Big Ten in almost every offensive category, leading the league in batting average and total runs scored and leading in stolen bases by a large margin, finishing with 107 with no one else posting more than 73. This group isn’t nearly as daring on the base paths, but it leads the Big Ten in batting average at .278 and runs scored at 253. They rank second to Northwestern in both home runs (48) and slugging percentage (.471). Four of their regulars and two more platoon players are hitting .297 or better with shortstop Benjamin Sems ranking fifth in the conference with a .344 average.

Michigan and Indiana ranked 1-2 respectively in earned run average in 2019, but that has flipped. The Wolverines are still solid on the mound led by weekend starters Steven Hajjar and Cameron Weston. They both rank top six in the league in ERA and Hajjar is tied for the Big Ten lead in strikeouts with 80. However, the Hoosiers have the best team ERA by more than a run per game at 2.87.

Sophomore right-hander Gabe Bierman, the Hoosiers’ Sunday starter, leads the conference in ERA at 2.26. Teams are hitting just .168 against him and he has 62 strikeouts against just 21 walks. Saturday starter McCade Brown is seventh in ERA at 3.06, fifth in strikeouts with 77 and second in opponent’s batting average at .157. Friday starter Tommy Sommer is fourth in strikeouts with 78 and also in the top 15 in ERA and opponent’s batting average and is tied for the league lead in wins with six.

All three are coming off strong starts. Sommer gave up just two runs and struck out six batters on Friday in a win over Rutgers. Brown struck out 11 and gave up just one run on one hit in seven innings Saturday in a win over Rutgers, and Bierman gave up two runs and struck out 11 in a complete game win on Sunday.

“Those three guys were absolutely dominant and incredible,” Mercer said. “Watching Gabe pitch on Sunday was watching a professional. … You’re watching a guy throw five pitches for a strike whenever he wants. You just don’t see that in college baseball.”

That kind of pitching gives the Hoosiers a chance to grab a firm hold of the conference this weekend, and to do more come June.

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