BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – It's never good when your batting average is a Bingo number, but that's where Indiana catcher Collin Hopkins was just nine days ago. He was, wait for it, O-65. Hold your cards.
Through last Friday's game with Minnesota on April 23, Hopkins was hitting .065 on the season. Oh sure, he'd hit a couple of huge home runs to help win games against Purdue and Illinois, but usually a Hopkins at bat ended in failure.
But now, thanks to a simpler approach, a shorter bat and a huge dose of confidence, the redshirt senior from Nashville, Tenn., is on a ridiculous tear. He was 4-for-4 on Sunday with three doubles, helping the Hoosiers beat Iowa 12-8 to win the weekend series.
And the big bonus? With the win and losses by Nebraska and Michigan, the 20-9 Hoosiers are now in first place in the Big Ten by a half-game. Bingo!
Hopkins has gone wild these past two weekends. He's hitting 12-for-16 (a .750 batting average) with an amazing nine doubles. He's hitting everything hard, and into the gaps, and the turnaround is stunning. His batting average is .279 now. There's no bingo card for a number that big.
"I'm just trying to put the barrel on the ball, to be quite honest with you. That's as simple as I can put it,'' Hopkins said. "I've really just gotten comfortable; that's really the main influence there. My swing is in a really good spot thanks to (Indiana coach Jeff Mercer) and the coaching staff trying to get me there, so I'm really just trying to keep it simple and be short and quick to the ball.''
Mercer said they worked with Hopkins to simplify his approach, and they talked him into switching from a 34-inch bat to a 33-inch bat "to have a little better barrel control,'' Mercer said. It's all paid off.
"Making some simplifications in his swing and in his approach has helped,'' Mercer said. "So has not having to press and not feel like to has to do so much to keep his job.
"For him, he's such a dutiful person by nature. He wants to hit and help us win, but he's not going to do all that himself. Securing the job allows him to settle in.''
Mercer has basically stuck with the same nine-man lineup the past four weeks or so, and that includes Hopkins. The move has paid off. During that time, the Hoosiers are 9-2 and are averaging 8.7 runs per game. Prior to that, they had scored three runs or less eight times this season.
Mercer was thrilled to win the series "against a really, really good Iowa team'' and he's loved the offensive approach lately. From top to bottom, he's getting production out of the lineup, and they are constantly pressuring opposing pitchers.
Sunday was no different.
Tied at 2-2 heading into the bottom of the fourth, the Hoosiers exploded for five runs to take command of the game. Hopkins started things with a double, and Drew Ashley and Paul Toetz followed with singles, with Toetz driving in two runs. Grant Richardson followed with a triple to right, and then third baseman Cole Barr hit a two-run homer to put Indiana up 7-2.
Iowa cut the lead to 9-7 in the top of the eighth inning, but then pinch-hitter Ethan Vecrumba basically ended it with a three-run bomb to right field, his first home run of the season.
"That was a great moment for us. It was huge,'' Mercer said. "It was a game-changing moment for us, and for him, too. He's a great kid who keeps showing up and working. You work hard all week to get that chance, and when those opportunities come up, you have to capitalize, and he did just that.''
Indiana closer Matt Litwicki got hit around a little bit for the first time all year, but he pitched the final two innings to end it. And after Nebraska and Michigan lost, the Hoosiers were suddenly in first place.
Gabe Bierman started for the Hoosiers and picked up the win, his third straight, raising his record to 4-2. Mercer loved how he worked out of trouble in the first and fourth, after an early walk and an error, ending the innings with just one run allowed each time.
"That was really huge, too,'' Mercer said. "You give up five runs there, you're not winning, but when you give up one run, you've still got a chance. That's why I love about Gabe. That's what he does. He's experienced, and he doesn't let those difficult moments get to him. He just keeps pitching. It was another spectacular performance.''
Bierman downplays the importance of his Sunday role, because he thinks every game is important, but it reality he might literally be Indiana's most important piece right now because he closes out the week in style.
In his last four starts, he's 3-0 and he's only given up four earned runs in 26 2/3 innings, a 1.35 earned run average. He beat Northwestern to win a series, and did the same again Sunday, providing huge momentum going in to the following week.
"Gabe's toughness really showed,'' Mercer said. "He's able to manage himself and his emotions and not let it get to him. He just competes all the way through. You always know what you're going to get from the person. He's consistent, and that mentality allows us to help us win a series today.''
It will come in handy this week, because the Hoosiers have to play four games in three days in Piscataway, N.J. They'll first play two games against Rutgers, who's been red-hot after knocking Nebraska out of first place with a sweep this weekend, and then play two against Nebraska there on Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning.
Beating Iowa in the series was huge, because after losing the opener Friday, the Hoosiers were just 1-6 this weekend against winning teams. Now they've won two in a row and are in first place.
"We've begun to really gel as a group and that mentality of coming in waves,'' Mercer said. "When you have a moment when you do lose and you have to pick yourself off the mat, when you have to get up, you feel like you can do it again and again.
"When you learn those lessons that you're powerful enough to move forward, I love that. You lose Friday, but you bounce right back and the goal is to still win the weekend and you show up and go. You just have to go back to work, and this team is beginning to find our identity with some toughness and some resiliency.''
Related stories on Indiana baseball
- FRIDAY'S GAME (Iowa wins 6-5): Indiana had a rare bad night defensively, making three clumsy errors that led to three unearned runs in a one-run loss. CLICK HERE
- SATURDAY'S GAME (Indiana wins 12-6): The Hoosiers' bats explode early to even the series. 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 next week'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