PISCATAWAY, N.J. – It's really hard to work your way into first place in the Big Ten, but it's even harder to stay there. Indiana's baseball team knows that all too well.
Thanks to winning two of three games over Iowa last weekend and Rutgers sweeping Nebraska, the 20-9 Hoosiers now stand alone at the top, but the margin is slim. They lead the Cornhuskers and Michigan by just a half-game, and that all could change every day for the next few weeks because Indiana has reached the top-heavy portion of their schedule now.
This weekend, they're off to Piscataway, N.J., where they will play two games with Rutgers – the hottest team in the league that's won five in a row – and then two more against Nebraska. They'll play Friday at 2 p.m. ET, then play a doubleheader on Saturday and a single game Sunday at 11 a.m.
It's a critical weekend, no doubt it. And it's just a start. Indiana plays three games at Michigan next weekend and then hosts Nebraska again and Ohio State the final weekend. That's 11 games in 16 days.
Indiana coach Jeff Mercer said a lot of thought has gone into pitching matchups this weekend, two four games and two opponents. They've spent a lot of time breaking down matchups, both with starters and potential relievers.
"The Saturday games, that certainly matters, and we did talk about that, and the matchups and what the matchps will be,'' Mercer said on Wednesday morning during his weekly meeting with the media. "What we're going to do on Saturday in Game 3 (the first one against Nebraska) is still up for debate. We want to make sure we have the matchups we want, and we want to protect the pen as best we can too.''
This much we know for sure. Traditional Friday starter Tommy Sommer (5-2, 3.57 ERA) will get the call in the opener against Rutgers, and Indiana announced that McCade Brown, who beat Rutgers during the opening weekend of the season, will face the Scarlet Knights again in the Saturday morning game.
Gabe Bierman will start Sunday, and the Hoosiers have left Saturday's second game open for now with a TBA on the starting assignment. John Modugno or Ty Bothwell are the most logical options, provided they aren't needed in the first two games.
All three of the announced starting pitchers facing Indiana are left-handers, which was a problem early, but the Hoosiers have hit lefties better a year ago.
"I think, like they say, that future results are often dictated by what's happened in past,'' Mercer. "We've been much better against lefties, and I thought our approach especially against Iowa, was really good.
"With two outs, we been battling. Maybe we're not always hitting the ball hard, but we're keeping it in play and extending innings. We have a bigger body of work against lefties now, which is why I have a lot of confidence that we'll compete well this weekend.''
It's also helped that several right-handed hitters have been red hot for Indiana. Third baseman Cole Barr was 6-for-10 last weekend with two huge home runs and catcher Collin Hopkins has gone 12-for-16 with nine doubles over the past two weekends.
VIDEO: Mercer on hitting lefties
Indiana has been much better hitting left-handed pitching lately after a rough start to the season, and that will come in handy this weekend since the Hoosiers will see three lefty starters.
Related stories on Indiana baseball
- TOMMY SOMMER PROFILE: Indiana starter Tommy Sommer leads the Big Ten in wins and innings pitched, but he knows he's still capable of much more down the home stretch. Here's Tom Brew's profile on the junior from Carmel, Ind. CLICK HERE
- PLAYER OF WEEK: Indiana third baseman Cole Barr was named the Big Ten's Player of the Week, the Hoosiers' first such honor in more than a year. CLICK HERE
- BIG TEN STANDINGS, SCHEDULE: Indiana took a half-game lead in the Big Ten, barely ahead of Nebraska and Michigan. Here's the latest, plus this weekend's critical schedule. CLICK HERE
- INDIANA SCHEDULE: Here is Indiana's complete schedule for the season, including links to game stories from Tom Brew for every game this season. CLICK HERE