Indiana falls 8-5 to Nebraska in weekend opener, falls 2 1/2 back of Big Ten lead

Tommy Sommer struck out two of the first three batters he faced and three of the first six. He was eight batters into the Nebraska order before anyone hit a ball out of the infield on him.

But in the course of that start, the Indiana junior left-hander cracked open the blister underneath the fingernail he split last week and it caused enough problems to make sure his day didn’t last long.

After giving up a walk, an infield single and another walk to load the bases with one out in the second, Sommer surrendered a bases-clearing double by freshman second baseman Brice Matthews. He then gave up another RBI double to Nebraska catcher Griffin Everitt to fall behind four runs by the time Indiana got out of the second inning.

Indiana answered with three runs of their own in the bottom of the second, but Sommer then gave up a two-run home run to freshman third baseman Max Anderson, and the Hoosiers were already in a hole they couldn’t dig out of. Sommer was pulled immediately after and Nebraska claimed an 8-5 win at Bart Kaufman Field that gives the Cornhuskers a two-game lead over Michigan for first place in the Big Ten and a 2 1/2-game lead over Indiana, which stays in third place with the loss.

The Hoosiers entered the weekend with the chance to take control of the Big Ten if they could beat Nebraska on Friday and Saturday and get some help from Maryland against Michigan. Instead, they desperately need a win over Nebraska on Saturday night and wins against Ohio State Sunday and Monday, plus help from the Buckeyes in their games against Nebraska in the pod.

So it was a significant problem that their Friday night starter suffered a pitching-specific injury less than three innings into his start. Sommer ranked third in the Big Ten in wins (six) and fifth in strikeouts (80) coming into the weekend and Mercer said he felt good for most of the week and threw a good bullpen session before the game. However Mercer could see early that the finger was bothering him. He almost pulled him before the Anderson home run, but decided to stick with him just a little bit longer.

“It just got away from us before we could get him out of there,” Mercer said. “The blister underneath his finger just cracked. They put some glue on it and tried to hold it all in place. You could see the finger just cracked. The blister had split open.”

A finger blister isn’t a debilitating problem for most athletes, but it can be a serious problem for a pitcher and Mercer said he isn’t certain what to expect from him going forward. He said he trusts Sommer to remain his Friday starter if he’s healthy enough to do that, but isn’t sure if he will be.

“I have confidence in his abilities,” Mercer said. “The question is, is he healthy? We’ll have to go back this week and see how he’s feeling and where he’s at. Obviously, tonight being a setback, we’ll have to re-evaluate as we go through this coming week.”

Sommer’s early setback spoiled a team performance that Mercer was otherwise thrilled with. Reliever Grant Macchiochi was stellar with six strikeouts in four shutout innings in which he allowed just two hits, and he liked the approaches he saw from the Hoosiers at the plate. Center fielder Grant Richardson homered and tripled in a run, shortstop Jeremy Houston went 3-for-5 with two RBIs, second baseman James Espalin drove in a run and the Hoosiers rapped out 11 hits. They chased Nebraska ace Cade Povich after four innings, forcing him to throw 84 pitches in that stretch.

However, the Cornhuskers’ bullpen was also excellent. Junior right-hander Koty Frank and junior left hander Jake Bunz combined to strike out seven batters in four innings with Bunz striking out the side in the eighth. The Hoosiers put runners in first and third with back-to-back singles to start the sixth but couldn’t put any runs across, and Richardson was stranded on third after a two-out RBI triple in the seventh which kept the Hoosiers from getting any closer.

Junior Spencer Schwellenbach, who started the game at shortstop, hit a solo home run in the ninth, then stepped onto the mound and retired the side in order in the ninth to put the game away.

“I thought we played terrific offensively,” Mercer said. “We were really competitive. … They threw all their best guys and stacked them up and pitched their tails off.”

In the loss, Mercer still walked away encouraged, though he needed something because his team is running out of time. It’s hard to imagine the Hoosiers will still be in contention by the end of the weekend if they don’t win out the rest of the way against Nebraska on Saturday at 6:30 p.m., then Ohio State Sunday at 5 pm. and Monday at 6 p.m. Nebraska and Michigan play each other next weekend, so they most likely need to be ahead of both of them by the end of the weekend to have a shot at the title.

“We were in the right spots, our shifts worked,” Mercer said. “Outside of the freak thing with Tommy, and I’m not just saying this, I thought it was one of our best games played this season. Our offensive approach was terrific all the way through. They just threw good arms and the got them out of there before you had a chance to get a feel for it and put a crooked number up.”