BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – Indiana's baseball team has hit the skids, losing five straight games and falling out of first place in the Big Ten. It's been a rough couple of weekends on the road, so it's good to be back home.
The Hoosiers hope to get back on track this weekend with a three-game series against Illinois at Bart Kaufman Field. The series starts with a 5 p.m. ET game on Friday, with single games on Saturday and Sunday afternoon.
Indiana's offensive woes have been the primary problem. They've scored only eight runs in the five losses, and struck out a whopping 28 during a Saturday doubleheader sweep and then wen 0-for-17 with a man on base in Sunday's loss at Ohio State. Indiana's batting average has dropped from .282 to .253 during the streak, going from No. 1 in the league to No. 8.
Indiana coach Jeff Mercer, who works most closely with the hitters, knows that bumps in the road aren't uncommon in baseball. So he's not panicking. It's more about just getting back to work and remaining confident, he said.
"I know that they're capable, and they've shown the ability to do it,'' Mercer said of his hitters. "It's easy for a coach to sit here and say the players didn't do this or didn't do that, but ultimately, if I'm in charge of that group, and I have been in charge of them, and I will (keep improving). We have to be more consistent with our ability to (hit against quality pitching.'
Right now, Indiana has just three every-day players hitting over .300, third baseman Cole Barr (.361), left fielder Drew Ashley (.343) and center fielder Grant Richardson (.319). First-year second baseman Paul Toetz cooled off at Ohio State and first baseman Jordan Fucci, though leading the team in extra-base hits, is hitting. 250 with a team-leading 29 strikeouts.
Mercer doesn't want to do a lot of lineup juggling though to snap out of the slump. That's just not his style.
"You keep the same guys if you can, but you have to be able to re-evaluate,'' Mercer said. "Not having a midweek game is difficult, because that's where you get an opportunity to look at the young guys. We have some really talented young guys that you'd like to get a look at, but I like consistency. I like to eat the same breakfast every day, where the same shirt, wear the same hat.
"All options are on the table, but I am not in any way, shape or form a reactionary person.''
Indiana is 11-7 on the season, in fourth place now in the Big Ten. Illinois is 8-10 and has won only one weekend series all year. There's balance in the league, but this is an opportunity for Indiana to get back to its winning ways.
The Big Ten race will basically be halfway over after this weekend, and the home stretch will be interesting to watch. There are NCAA Tournament bids on this line, and Mercer, though he doesn't get into scoreboard watching, knows what's at stake. With a conference-only schedule, the league hasn't had any chances to show off around the country, and the tournament selection committee will have a tough job this season.
"I always feel weird watching the standings, because the reality is we have plenty to worry about in our own program,'' Mercer said. "When we were in first place in the conference, you can tell them, 'hey, we're in first place, we're going to everyone's best shot.' We got it at Ohio State.
"I haven't gotten a real straight answer from people (about the NCAA Tournament). I think we're looking at three, maybe four teams, and they're really going to have to pass the eye test because the RPI is non-existent this year. But there's a lot of smart people in the room about making a decision.''
Mercer will stick with the same starters this weekend, and they've all been very good. Tommy Sommer (3-1, with a 2.45 earned run average) will start Friday, McCade Brown (3-2, 2.57 ERA with a league-leading 49 strikeouts) will go Saturday, and Gabe Bierman (1.2, 3.00 ERA) gets the start on Sunday.
For the full Big Ten schedule this weekend and the current league standings, CLICK HERE