BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – Through Gabe Bierman's first two years at Indiana, he took a lot of pride in his control and keeping hitters off-balance with a dominant change-up. First primarily as a reliever in 2019 and then as a starter in the abbreviated 2020 season, he was one of the Hoosiers most reliable pitchers.
In 24 outings, including nine starts, he had never walked more than three batters in a game. But to start out 2021, he walked nine combined batters in his first two starts, covering just 10 innings. He was, quite frankly, simply not himself.
"There were a lot of people watching me, and they were saying that I didn't look like me, that I was trying to pitch like someone else,'' Bierman said in an interview this week. "I can't pitch like somebody else, I need to pitch my game.
"I feel confident with the person I am now, and I'm just going to keep letting that happen. I'm at my best when I'm pounding the zone, and keeping guys off-balance. I've been able to do that much better these past couple of games just by being me.''
He's done exactly that in his last two starts, and he's been Indiana's most dominant pitcher. When Indiana was scuffling through a four-game losing streak, Bierman pitched seven innings at Ohio State, allowing only three hits and an unearned run. He gave his team a chance to win. They didn't, but he did his job.
And then last weekend at Northwestern, he took the ball on Sunday with the series on the line. He pitched 7 2/3 shutout innings, allowing only two hits and a walk in the Hoosiers' 4-0 win. He's now pitched 15 2/3 consecutive innings with allowing an earned run, the longest such streak by any Indiana pitcher this season.
Now he's 2-2 on the year, with an ERA that's now down to 2.34. He's done it by not picking at corners and relying on his defense. Only 11 of his 44 outs the past two games have come via strikeout, but no one is hitting the ball hard, either. He's only given up one home run all year, and that was in the season opener six weeks ago.
"I have a lot of action on my fastball and my sinker, too, and I've been really good all year in getting soft contact, and pitching to that,'' Bierman said. "I've only given up one home run, and there really haven't been a lot of hard-hit balls. I have no problem relying on my defense, because we've been that good.
"I don't mind pitching to contact, to soft contact, and trusting in my defense to make plays. My change-up will always be a weapon for me, but I need my fastball to set that up, and when they're both going well, and I can beat guys with my fastball when they're sitting on my change, too. It's all about keeping them guessing. keeping them off-balance.''
Indiana coach Jeff Mercer said
"It's a weird thing when you have to let someone hit the fastball. He was trying to throw this perfect fastball, and that's hard to do when you have a fastball that moves as much as his does. You're Gabe Bierman, so be the player you are. He's a terrific player, and he has a great change-up. But no one swings at it if you're fastball's not working.
"Now he's continiously in an 0-1 count, a 1-2 count and that change-up is like a bomb in a hitter's mind. As he's forced contact, he actually gets the swings and misses off of them. He's been dominant, and we're really proud of them.''
Bierman has settled into his role as the Sunday starter nicely, and he enjoys pitching that final game all weekend. There's usually a lot on the line, and it sets the tone for the week ahead as well.
"I love pitching on Sundays,'' Bierman said. "It's always a big day, no matter what, whether we're up 2-0, or it's 1-1 or like Ohio State, where I really needed to give us a chance to win.
"And coming off a loss, it's nice to get some confidence back in my teammates as well. I want to give them six, seven great innings and take it from there.''
Mercer says there's no difference in his three starters, really, and he has full faith and confidence in all of them.
"He's done a really good job on Sundays, which is huge when you have a guy who you feel is an equal to the Friday and Saturday guys,'' Mercer said.
Bierman, a high school star at Jeffersonville, Ind., was bothered by tendinitis in his elbow during fall workouts and had to shut down for a while.
"The first scrimmage this fall, it kind of bothered me. I had some tendinitis in my elbow and you just have to give it rest,'' Bierman said. "I've had it once before, and it stinks because you want to help your teammates, but the timing was good, too. It was the fall, and I could be patient, but then I had to get back in the groove once I started throwing again.
"I was ready to go when the season started, I really was, but I was trying to be too fine those first couple of starts. That's not me.''
Bierman said he's learned a lot during his time at Indiana, and he feels like he's become a complete pitcher thanks to pitching coach Justin Parker.
"The last two years have been big for me in learning how to pitch, working on things in the bullpen to get zoned in and then taking that to the mound,'' he said. "I get a lot of competition during the course of the week, too, because we work so hard, and I think that's made all of us better.
"My goal has always been to have all of my pitches come out of the same slot, my fastball, my sinker, my change. And each one sets up the other.''
He's found a nice groove, and it will likely continue on Sunday against Minnesota. He's got all his pitches working right now, and he's got hitters off-balance in a big way right now.
Gabe Bierman is back to being Gabe Bierman again, and that's a very good thing.
VIDEO: Jeff Mercer on Gabe Bierman's season
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