As disastrous as its penultimate weekend of the regular season was, Indiana managed to head into its last three games on the right side of the bubble.
The Hoosiers dropped two games Friday and Saturday to practically hand Nebraska the Big Ten title, then lost to Ohio State Sunday before finally claiming a win over the Buckeyes on Monday. By Wednesday, however, the Hoosiers were still seeing their name in NCAA Tournament bracket projections. D1Baseball.com had Indiana as one of the last five teams in and Baseball America had them in as a No. 3 seed in Florida’s region.
So even after taking six losses in eight games at just about the worst possible time, the Hoosiers had in a sense survived.
But they can’t afford another losing weekend, and they’ll be playing against a team that is much safer in its NCAA Tournament hopes. The Hoosiers ( get Maryland in College Park, Md., starting Friday at 6:30 p.m. and continuing Saturday at 2 p.m. and Sunday at 1 p.m. The Terrapins took two out of three from Michigan last weekend to jump ahead of both the Wolverines and Indiana to take second place in the Big Ten behind Nebraska. At the moment, Baseball America has them slated to take a No. 2 seed in a regional in which the top seed will be Arizona.
The Terps have one of the Big Ten’s most potent lineups, ranking fourth in the conference with 271 runs scored, second in home runs with 58 and third in slugging percentage at .449. They also lead the league in stolen bases with 64, adding a dangerous run game to the power.
Junior shortstop Benjamin Cowles leads the Big Ten in home runs with 17, ranks second in RBIs with 46 and third in slugging percentage at .660. Freshman second baseman Matthew Shaw ranks fifth in the conference at .346 and senior center fielder Chris Alleyne leads the conference with 22 stolen bases. He is also eighth in the league in hits (51), 10th in slugging (.581) and tied for second in doubles (14).
“Maryland’s offense is talented,” Indiana coach Jeff Mercer said. “… If you look at them the last several weeks, they’ve been the best team in the conference. And I know Nebraska has been terrific, but just the last six or eight weeks they’ve been really, really good. They’re really physically gifted. If you look at their statistics, they’re a really balanced offense and the last several weeks they’ve played really, really well.
And they’re not much worse on the mound, ranking fourth in the league in ERA at 4.71. Friday starter Nick Dean ranks fourth in the conference in ERA at 2.87 and has walked just 11 batters in 53 1/3 innings. Meanwhile 6-foot-6, 230-pound right-hander Sean Burke ranks fifth in the conference in strikeouts with 87 and fourth in opponent’s batting average at .187.
Indiana has arms to counter, ranking first in the conference in ERA at 3.14, but their rotation is in flux as they monitor Friday starter Tommy Sommer’s pitching hand. The left-hander split a finger nail open and developed a blister in a game against Michigan earlier this month. He tried to pitch against Nebraska in the weekend opener last week but aggravated the injury. As of Wednesday afternoon, Mercer was unsure of his status and therefore wasn’t sure what that might mean for fellow starters McCade Brown and Gabe Bierman.
“Tommy is still up in the air,” Mercer said. “Tommy is still up in the air whether he’s able to go on Friday, whether it’s relief, whether it’s a start later in the weekend is really still up in the air. … All options are on the table, full disclosure.”
And the Hoosiers have to make the right decision there, as they can just as easily come out of this weekend on the wrong side of the bubble. And if they are, they’ll be out of time to fix it.