Indiana Baseball: Young Pitchers Ready to Take Next Step
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — When Indiana takes the field for the first time this season against LSU, the player stalking the mound to open the game will be a newcomer to the team’s weekend rotation. Last year's constants for the Hoosiers — Pauly Milto, Andrew Saalfrank and Tanner Gordon — have all moved on, passing the torch to the next generation of pitchers.
This year, juniors Tommy Sommer and Gabe Bierman will be expected to anchor Indiana’s young pitching staff when the season opens on Friday against No. 12-ranked LSU in Baton Rouge, La.
Last season, Sommer and Bierman were key components of an Indiana bullpen that posted a sub-four earned run average. On top of keeping opponents from scoring, both pitchers also did a good job limiting baserunners.
Opponents only hit .214 against Sommer last season while he also posted a 3.36 strikeouts-per-walk ratio, the fourth-best mark on the team.
“Tommy Sommer pitched big innings for us last year. He’s done a really good job this year,'' Indiana coach Jeff Mercer said, "Gabe Bierman also has done a really nice job, and Braydon Tucker. Those guys have taken a good step forward.”
Out of the bullpen, Bierman was just as effective. The right-handed pitcher from Jeffersonville, Ind., held opponents to a .209 batting average — third-best for Indiana last season — and had 2.55 strikeouts-per-walk in 48 innings of work.
Both Sommer and Bierman were used sparingly as starters, each with only five starts last season, but showed that they were up to the task when called upon, winning four games each.
With his new role as one of the aces for Indiana, Sommer took the offseason to expand his pitching repertoire in preparation for becoming a full-time starter. Last season out of the bullpen, the big lefty from Carmel, Indiana was strictly a fastball-changeup pitcher that relied on overpowering hitters to get outs.
During the offseason, Sommer focused on developing a curveball to keep batters guessing and create new ways to get guys out.
“I’ve really worked on developing my curveball,” Sommer said. “Having to go through a lineup three or four times is a little different than working out of the bullpen, so developing a third and maybe fourth pitch was something that was really important to me.”
Behind the starters, the Hoosiers have a bullpen full of young talent.
Last season, Indiana had to rely on a select few to carry the giant's load of work out of the bullpen. Outside of Sommer, Bierman and then-sophomore Connor Manous, the Hoosiers went to the bullpen sparingly, and they trusted the starters to go six-plus innings.
Now, Indiana expects to utilize its bullpen more often, using the team’s abundance of depth to its advantage.
“I feel this pitching staff is a lot deeper than what we’ve had in the past,” Sommer said. “Something the coaching staff and I are really excited about is just the plethora of different kinds of arms we got coming out of the bullpen. It’s going to be exciting for us, and definitely beneficial as the season goes on.”
For young players, improvement during the two months between winter break and the beginning of the season is crucial for having success as the season begins, especially for pitchers.
Two freshmen who have shown a lot of growth in that time have been David Platt and John Modungo. Both guys are hard-throwing right-handed pitchers who are expected to provide instant contributions out of the bullpen for the Hoosiers.
Platt comes to Indiana with the uncommon skill set of already having three legitimate pitches that he’s comfortable throwing, a fastball, changeup and curve ball.
The back end of the Hoosiers’ bullpen will be anchored by Manous, redshirt-senior Grant Sloan and sophomore McCade Brown. Manous’ two saves from last year are the most out of all the returning pitchers, while Sloan and Brown have both been standouts during fall-ball and winter workouts.
“A big jump for me has been McCade Brown,” Sommer said. “I’m excited for him because he’s a name that nobody really knows and who is going to shock some people this year. I’m excited for him to develop into the pitcher I know he can become and that I don’t even think he knows he can become.”