After Indiana lost its fifth straight game Sunday night, putting its NCAA Tournament hopes in jeopardy after it had already seen its Big Ten title opportunity disappear, Hoosiers coach Jeff Mercer went to visit his father Jeff Sr., who lives next door to him.
Jeff Sr. is himself a long-time baseball coach, a former Indiana assistant and one of the founders of the Indiana Bulls travel program. Whenever his son comes over to talk baseball, he gives a sympathetic ear, but also advice that can be unsparing when it has to be. He told Jeff Jr. to get some input from his players and find out if he needed to ease off the reins a little.
“He asked me what I thought was going on,” Mercer Jr. said. “And I gave him my two cents. And he said, ‘The best way to find out is to go ask somebody.’ … He said, ‘I know you’re trying. I know you guys are coaching.’ And we have a great coaching staff. And we have guys who are trying hard to help.”
But after meeting with a few players, Mercer realized that his father was probably right and that in the last four games of the regular season, he should take a step back and let his players play. He wouldn’t claim responsibility for what happened Monday, but the Hoosiers were clearly looser in a 2-0 win over Ohio State that ended the losing streak. They enter the final series of the regular season next weekend at Maryland with some momentum and a 25-16 record that for now keeps them on the NCAA Tournament bubble.
“It’s big,” Mercer said. “Everyone talks about not talking about what you’re up against. But we know what we’re up against and we have a sense of that. It was big. It was a really fun locker room after the game. It was a great sense of relief, to be honest with you.”
The Hoosiers made it happen with excellent pitching from the three hurlers they put on the mound and timely hitting from a lineup that has struggled to put the ball in play in recent weeks.
Indiana couldn’t get a win in the three games in which their usual weekend starters pitched, but got nine brilliant innings from their bullpen arms.
Right-hander John Modugno, a spot starter who made his third start and 15th total appearance, started the Hoosiers off with four shutout innings in which he allowed just one hit, struck out three and didn’t walk a batter and did that on a day’s rest after throwing an inning in relief on Saturday. Left-hander Ty Bothwell followed with two hitless innings and right-hander Grant Macciochi finished it off with three one-hit innings. It was Indiana’s first shutout since April 18 against Northwestern.
“They were terrific,” Mercer said. “… John and the rest of those guys were outstanding. When you’ve got Ty and Chioch there on the back end, you feel really confident. Chioch is an adult and has really good stuff. He’s a great competitor, he gets off the mound. John goes one one day’s rest. Those guys were pulling it out for their teammates. It was really impressive to watch those guys work. They executed pitch after pitch after pitch.”
The offense needed three innings to adjust to Ohio State left-hander Isaiah Coupet and his big, slow curveball. He struck out seven of the nine batters he faced in the first three innings, but he only got one out in the fourth before coming out of the game. The Hoosiers moved up in the box to try to catch it earlier in its break and got more aggressive about putting it in play. The Hoosiers opened the inning with back-to-back singles from shortstop Jeremy Houston and left fielder Drew Ashley and then center fielder Grant Richardson was hit by a pitch to load the bases. Third baseman Colin Barr hit a grounder deep into the hole between short and third, and Ohio State shortstop Zach Dezenzo made a diving play on the ball, but Houston scored when Dezenzo took the out at third.
Designated hitter Paul Toetz lined an RBI single to score Ashley in the bottom of the eighth to give the Hoosiers insurance that they didn’t end up needing.
Throughout, Indiana played more like a team that didn’t have anything to lose even while it was playing for its postseason life. The Big Ten Network caught some of the dugout antics, and Mercer was pleased to see it.
“I told them, ‘I want you to have as much fun as you can,'” Mercer said. “‘I want you to enjoy yourself as much as you can. I want the music to be loud. I want you to ride fake horses in the dugout and try to enjoy playing a silly kids game as a grown man.’ They had a fake horse race in the dugout for the first time in a while. They even had a cowboy hat. It was just nice to see the boys being boys for a little bit.”