Indiana baseball takes first place in the Big Ten

At the beginning of April, the Indiana baseball program’s Big Ten title hopes took a swift and dramatic tumble.

The Hoosiers went into Columbus in first place in the league and dropped four straight to Ohio State to fall from 11-3 to 11-7, allowing the Buckeyes and several other teams to pass them.

But since April 4, the Hoosiers have rallied to nine wins in their last 11 games, claiming series victories over Illinois, Northwestern, Minnesota and Iowa. Their 12-8 win Sunday over the Hawkeyes at Bart Kaufman Field moved them into a first-place tie with Michigan at 20-9 for first place in the league. (Big Ten teams are playing only conference games this season before NCAA Tournament play.)

“We’ve begun to really jell as a group,” Indiana coach Jeff Mercer said in a post-game Zoom press conference posted on YouTube by the athletics department. “I think the mentality of just coming in waves. We have to be able to recover. You can’t take a momentary loss and make it a long-term setback. I think you learn that in the Ohio State series. Whatever happens down the stretch here happens down the stretch, whether we win or we lose, we’ll find out. When you have a moment when you do lose and you do falter, you have to pick yourself up off the mat. You don’t have a choice. You either roll over and die and give up or you have to get up off the mat and go back to work. When you have moments like that, and you do get up, you think that you can do it again and again and again.”

Indiana’s offense in particular has picked up. The Hoosiers scored double-digit runs just once in their first 25 games and they scored a combined total of seven runs against Ohio State in four games in Columbus. Since a 23-1 blowout of Minnesota on April 25, they have outscored opponents 52-21 with three double-digit scoring efforts in four games.

Meanwhile, the Hoosiers have the best pitching staff in the Big Ten, leading the conference with a 2.97 ERA. Gabe Bierman, Sunday’s starter, leads the conference in ERA at 2.51 with a 4-2 record. He struck out nine batters on Sunday.

“Gabe was terrific again,” Mercer said. “The toughness really showed itself. … Gabe is able to manage himself, his emotions, and to not allow an inning to get away from him. That’s huge.If you give up a run, you can find a way to win. If you give up five, it becomes a lot harder to find a way to win. That’s what Gabe does. It’s his mentality, it’s his upbringing, where he just finds a way to compete all the way through.”

It won’t be an easy task to remain on top.  The Hoosiers have 14 games remaining in the season, composed of five series — all against teams in the upper half of the Big Ten standings.  IU will face Rutgers (2 games), Nebraska (4 games), Michigan (3 games), Ohio State (2 games) and Maryland (3 games) to close out the Big Ten campaign.  Only four of the remaining 14 contests will be played in Bloomington.

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