Indiana baseball began its regional weekend by stepping up in big moments.
The weekend ended because the opposite happened.
Indiana started 2-0 in the Lexington regional and needed just one more win to advance to its first Super Regional since 2013, while Kentucky needed two wins. And in Monday’s deciding winner-take-all game, the Wildcats got the job done. Kentucky advanced with a 4-2 victory at Kentucky Proud Park.
The stat that will haunt Indiana from this game is its 1 for 15 mark with runners in scoring position. The Hoosiers stranded seven runners in scoring position. It’s difficult to pick any one moment as the most game-defining — a lot of individual missed opportunities led to this missed opportunity of a game.
But the second and seventh innings will sting the most. IU had the bases loaded with no outs in the second and scored only one run from it.
The Hoosiers got two runners on base to start the seventh, and head coach Jeff Mercer opted to bunt them over to second and third to bring up Devin Taylor, Big Ten freshman of the year, and Brock Tibbitts — the heart of IU’s batting order. And the big decision didn’t pay off, as Taylor struck out and Tibbitts grounded out.
Mercer credited Kentucky pitchers Mason Moore and Darren Williams for keeping IU at bay, but said his offense needed to perform better.
“We had a bunch of guys on base. We had six hits and a walk, that’s seven base runners,” Mercer said. “You just can’t leave guys on base because when you get to Moore, he’s really good. Typically we’ve done a good job (with runners on base). We’ve scored runs. We’re probably the second-best offense in the Big Ten and probably top-40 or 50 in the country. They did a really good job of getting the tough zones to drive in runs.”
But despite the disappointing finish, this was — without a doubt — a very positive year for Indiana baseball. It was a crucial season for Mercer, after three straight years without an NCAA Tournament (including 2020, when the tournament was canceled). If things went awry for these Hoosiers once again, it would’ve sparked questions about the long-term direction of the program.
That didn’t happen. This team was expected to be better than last year’s version, but not this good. Indiana challenged for the Big Ten championship into the final weekend of the regular season. The Hoosiers finished 43-20, their most wins since 2014. That is a tangible step in the right direction, and something IU can build on.
“Winning is fun. Winning is more fun than losing. Whenever you can win a few games that definitely helps,” first baseman Brock Tibbitts said. “I think it goes back to the fall. I felt something special within the locker room. I think we all, internally, felt it. Just kind of knew that this year was going to be a pretty special one. It sucks to end this way, but I think it’s been a pretty fun year.”
IU’s team was young, and much of this core will return. Outfielder Devin Taylor — Big Ten freshman of the year — will be back, along with outfielder Carter Mathison, second baseman Tyler Cerny, third baseman Josh Pyne, and Tibbitts. Luke Sinnard will join them atop the rotation along with several other pitchers who showed promise this year.
The Hoosiers could be right back here next year. But there’s luck involved in getting to this point, and things could break differently for IU next year. There are no certainties in sports. This could be the program’s lone realistic shot at a Super Regional for a long time. Or, of course, the team could get through next year.
That’s just the reality of losing a big game and looking ahead to next year. There’s no way to know if this is just the beginning or if it’s truly the end.
So all IU can do for now is reflect on a good season, soak in the experience of coming so close to a Super Regional, and start working towards next year.
“Every team but one — I’m not unique — is going to have the same thing where you’re sad because I don’t get to see them anymore. But that’s a beautiful thing,” Mercer said. “So it makes life beautiful. It’s over. It moves on and it changes and it’s different. So you’ve got to enjoy the moment. That’s why you’ve got them. I’m glad I got to experience a lot of great moments with those guys because it’s a beautiful group of kids.”