Indiana baseball loss to Illinois puts Hoosiers in tight spot heading into key weekend

Jeff Mercer thanked Dan Hartleb for the opportunity to play the game. After dropping two games in Bloomington in mid-April before the weather made it impossible to play the third, Hartleb put his Illinois team back on a bus to play a road game Tuesday against an Indiana team for which every game matters in its hope for a Big Ten championship. The Illini entered the day in seventh place in the league, so the game was in no way necessary for them, but they made the 2 1/2 hour trip anyway.

“Coach Hartleb was kind enough to work with us,” Mercer said. “He’s a terrific coach and a great guy. For them to come back over and get that game back on the schedule was terrific.”

But as it turned out, the Hoosiers would have been better off just letting it go.

Had they won, they could have cut Nebraska’s lead over them for first place in the Big Ten standings down to 1/2 game. Instead, Illinois center fielder Taylor Jackson’s 10th-inning home run gave the Illini a 3-2 extra-inning victory and sent the Hoosiers (24-13) into their weekend four-game pod with Nebraska (25-11) and Ohio State (19-16) in third place in the Big Ten, 1 1/2 games behind first place Nebraska and 1/2 game behind second-place Michigan (25-13).

The Hoosiers finished with nine hits to Illinois’ five and Jackson’s home run made him the first Illinois batter since the third inning to reach second base. However, the Hoosiers left 12 men on base and failed to score after the fourth inning despite getting the leadoff man on base in the fifth, seventh, eighth ninth and 10th. Indiana hitters struck out a combined 15 times.

“I felt like early we overswung and pulled off balls and left a lot of guys,” Mercer said. “We had two guys on base in the first, overswung and tried to do too much. After that, I thought we got a little tentative and a little bit scared, and I thought we pulled off balls all day and got underneath. When they got fastballs up, they really abused us with it and we weren’t able to make an adjustment with it.”

Indiana used four pitchers to keep debilitating any of their arms for the weekend, and those hurlers combined to strike out 17 Illinois hitters and surrender just five hits with just two of them coming after the third inning. However, they fell behind in part because of two unearned runs in the first inning that came because of a botched grounder by shortstop Jeremy Houston.

“It’s something that we’ve obviously spent a lot of time talking about, a lot of time working on,” Mercer said of the fielding. “It has been a problem, it has been a concern and we haven’t done a very good job with it. We’ve pitched it really well for most of the season, but as of late we haven’t done a good enough job taking care of the ball.”

And because of their mishaps, they head into the weekend with a smaller margin for error than they were hoping for.

The Hoosiers play Nebraska Friday at 8 p.m. and Saturday at 6:30 p.m., then get Ohio State Sunday at 5 p.m. and Monday at 6 p.m. The Cornhuskers and Buckeyes play each other Saturday at noon and Sunday at noon.

Being the home team helps the cause, as the other squads have to play doubleheaders and Indiana does not, but overtaking Nebraska means winning at least two games more on the weekend than the Cornhuskers do. The teams split their two meeting earlier this month in Piscataway, N.J. in a three-team pod at Rutgers, so the Hoosiers could use two wins over Nebraska to get the tiebreaker if it comes down to that. After this weekend, they will have just three games at Maryland May 28-30 to try to make up the remaining deficit.

Beating the Huskers means beating the best hitting team in the Big Ten. They lead the league in batting average at .281 and rank second in runs scored (264), fourth in home runs (44) fourth in slugging (.445) and tied for first in on-base percentage (.387). They boast three of the Big Ten’s top 10 hitters in freshman Max Anderson (.340), senior Jaxon Hallmark (.338) and senior Luke Roskam (.336).

The Hoosiers counter with the Big Ten’s top pitching staff, leading the league with a 3.11 ERA and they managed to preserve their arms for a four-game weekend. Mercer said they will use their standard rotation with left-hander Tommy Sommer pitching Friday night against Nebraska and right-hander McCade Brown on Saturday, then using right-hander Gabe Bierman against Ohio State Sunday and right-hander John Modugno on Monday. Sommer injured a finger on his pitching hand, but Mercer said that won’t be an issue.

Mercer was, however, hoping for a boost of a more normal home field environment with states and municipalities starting to lessen COVID-19 restrictions on capacity for outdoor events. He was not pleased to hear that, in consultation with Monroe County authorities, Indiana has decided not to increase capacity for spring events and baseball games will continue to be played only in front of family members and staff.

“It’s incredibly frustrating,” Mercer said. “Incredibly frustrating. … It’s frustrating that we’re not allowing fans beyond family at this point.”