BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – Jeff Mercer knows the deal when it comes to starting a baseball season. It's the same thing every spring. He's sick of practice, and so are his players. His Indiana baseball team is ready to play a game.
And rightly so. Because it's been a long, long time.
It's just six days short of a calendar year since Indiana has played a game that mattered. They played on March 11 a year ago, beating Cincinnati in their 15th game of the spring. But then COVID-19 shut down the country, including the college basketball season. The Hoosiers, who were hoping to win the Big Ten and earn another trip to the NCAA Tournament, never played again.
But Opening Day has finally arrived for the Hoosiers. They are playing a doubleheader on Friday at U.S. Bank Field in Minneapolis, playing Rutgers indoors at 4 p.m. ET and then playing Minnesota at 8 p.m.
It's the start of a shorter, 44-game schedule that will be played entirely against Big Ten opponents. That's never happened before, so it should be interesting as the Hoosiers chase a Big Ten title and an NCAA Tournament spot.
"It's a sprint, but it's still a marathon. You're still trying to get your team ready for the last month,'' said Indiana coach Jeff Mercer, who's starting his third year as head coach of the Hoosiers. "The good thing about being in our position, and being in our conference, is that we're going to be able to have the RPI to be in the conversation to make the postseason tournament without having to win every game up front.
"But they all still matter, right from the beginning. We just need to go play, and when you exacerbate that with everything that's gone on from last year, it's tough. But we'll be fine. It'll be a challenge, but we've worked hard to prepare for that.''
Indiana was considered a contender for a Big Ten title a year ago, and nothing has change 12 months later. Indiana has its full starting rotation back, plus its key arms in the bullpen. The starting lineup will look very familiar too, with most everyone back as well.
With no nonconference schedule, Mercer says it will be a challenge to get playing time for a lot of people. He'd like to get a lineup set and go with it, but that won't be easy with this schedule. There are critical conference games every weekend through the end of May, and no midweek nonconference games to get other hitters at-bats or get innings for other pitchers.
Learning as you go is a must, he said
"You're trying to find the right role and right place for everyone, but you're trying to find that lineup, too,'' Mercer said. "I like that, because it allows everyone to settle in and do their job. We want to be the best version of ourselves in the last month, but we need to be the best version of ourselves right now, too.''
Mercer feels good about where his pitching staff is, which is an odd feeling for the start of a season. He said they made a commitment in the offseason to get stronger, and the work has paid off. He feels like his starters are ready to go long right out of the gate.
"We've been able to get up to five, six innings with them in a practice setting, which is a lot,'' Mercer said. "We'll be at 90-100 pitches, depending on the guy, as we go into the season. I'll be honest, not having innings last year hurt our staff in the fall. When the shutdown happened, the hitters can go get in a cage and with a machine, they can hit. The pitchers, they're just down, or they're pitching once a week in a (summer) league, and that's not the same.
"We knew we had to get them back in the weight room. About a month ago, you could see all of that work, those three or four months, paying off. That was a huge balancing act in the offseason. Now, the pitching staff is really good. Velocities are up, the breaking stuff is really good. They should be fine, and I don't see any issues with the back of the season.''
Gabe Bierman, a sophomore from Jeffersonville, Ind., will get the start in Friday's opener against Rutgers. He had a team-best 2.45 ERA in 22 innings a year ago. Tommy Sommer will start the nightcap against Minnesota.
Indiana will play Rutgers again on Saturday night, with McCade Brown getting the start. Those three were Indiana's weekend starters a year ago. Ty Bothwell will start against Minnesota on Sunday, He'll be a big contributor, too.
"Those guys are all very good, and they're ready to go,'' Mercer said. "Ty, he would have done it last year if we could have finished, and he's done it now for two summers in a row. He's whipped our hitters' butts all year, and I think he's going to be great.
"He has a fastball that's just really difficult to hit. For a hitting coach that prides himself on teaching an offense to hit a fastball, it's hard for us to square it up, especially in those first three, four innings. His fastball really plays up, and he can spin it too.''
Indiana's bullpen should be very good again, too. There are plenty of big arms down there, let by Connor Manous and Braden Scott. But they're just the start.
"Braden Scott is the adult in the room and he could pitch every game, so that's an issue you have to manage. He can't be pitching in 40 games, but he's so good that you want him out there,'' Mercer said. "And Connor Manous is doing great. I was really surprised at how quickly he recovered (from hip flexor surgery). His velocity is back around 89-91 and his curveball is still really, really good. He's ready to go, which is terrific.''
Mercer loves that there's plenty of leadership on this veteran team. It's a good group to coach, he said.
"I think the first guy that comes to mind there is (third baseman) Cole Barr. I think he's been terrific,'' Mercer said. "He's just grown during this tumultuous time and he's become a young man. And on the pitching side, Tommy Sommer has done that, too. He's a worker, he's a professional.
"Those two guys have really impacted the club in a positive way. And guys like Drew Ashley and Grant Richardson and McCade Brown, they've all done a nice job. We're fortunate to have those guys around.''
Indiana 2021 baseball schedule
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