Indiana Baseball: Tommy Sommer Hasn't Been Perfect, But He's Still Finding Ways to Win

Indiana hands the ball to left-hander Tommy Sommer to start every weekend series. He leads the Big Ten in wins, but he's been walking too many people. He's worked around it, though, and keeps piling up victories.
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BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – Indiana is in first place in the Big Ten baseball race, and they've won every weekend series but one this year. They're 20-9, they're consistent and they're a threat to win other Big Ten title.

It's all good.

Junior left-hander Tommy Sommer, the Hoosiers' traditional Friday starter, leads the Big Ten in wins (5), starts (9) and innings pitched (51 1/3) by a wide margin. But don't use that "consistent'' word around him. 

Despite some lofty numbers, he's not happy with the way he's pitched so far this season, but he also knows he's not far off and is expecting big things in the final month of the season. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound junior knows the value of what lies ahead, and he holds himself to a high standard.

"Me personally, I don't think I've been consistent at all. That's been my pitfall,'' Sommer said. "Usually you can count on me for that, for having good control and for always keeping my team in the game.

"But this year, I've been walking a lot of guys and really putting myself in too many high-pressure situations. That's not me, but I've got a lot figured out lately and felt really good with my bullpen (session) this week, where I kind of found some things. I think I'll be better going forward.

Sommer has walked four or more batters in six of his nine starts, and he's had to deal with a lot of traffic on the base paths. More often than not, however, he's found a way to get through it. The Hoosiers are 4-2 in those games. Sommer is 5-2 overall. 

"It's been an up-and-down year for me, but I keep us in games and I take a lot of pride in that,'' the Carmel, Ind., native said. "You might only have your best stuff three or four games a year, and the other times you just need to find a way. I think I've done that. I think we do that pretty well as a staff. We put us in a position to win, and then we hand it over to our guys in the bullpen, and they've been great.''

This is Sommer's fourth year with the Hoosiers, but the first as a full-time starter every weekend. He made 12 starts previously through the first three years. This is the most innings he's ever pitched at Indiana, and as the weekend's first starter, he's pitched in a lot of critical games, with more to come.

That's just the way he likes it. He was born – and raised – for these big moments.

Indiana pitcher Tommy Sommer leads the Big Ten in wins and innings pitched, and the Hoosiers count in him to start series openers every Friday. (Photos courtesy of IU Athletics)

Indiana pitcher Tommy Sommer leads the Big Ten in wins and innings pitched, and the Hoosiers count in him to start series openers every Friday. (Photos courtesy of IU Athletics)

Indiana athletic legacy in family

The Sommer family is IU through and through and Tommy's father – Juergen Sommer — is one of the best players in Indiana soccer history. He was a goalkeeper, and helped win one of Indiana's eight national championships in 1988. He had a long professional career as well, both as one of the first Americans in Europe and then in the U.S., and little Tommy hung around with him in the locker room and on the field as a little boy. 

He last played with the New England Revolution in the MLS in 2004, and they shared Gillette Stadium with the New England Patriots football team. Tommy was around all of that.

"He was always very comfortable in that space, and I'm sure that helped him in all sports, just fitting in,'' his father, Juergen, said. "He loved being around the locker room with me, and we had a bunch of great guys on that team. He loved being there.  It was special.''

A lot of what makes Tommy Sommer great as a pitcher – the smarts, the stuff, the in-the-moment calmness and grit – comes from his parents, soccer dad Juergen and mom Susie, a former high school softball player herself.

"My dad always left the baseball stuff to other people, but I've learned a ton from him from the mental side of just being an athlete at this level. I lean on him a lot for that,'' Sommer said. "He's taught me how to take care of business, with the hard work and discipline it takes that a lot of people take for granted. We've talked a lot about school work, always being early to meetings, being coachable, it all adds up.

"Even as a freshman, I had a lot of maturity and was comfortable in big situations. I get a lot of that from my parents. My mom, she's been just as influential as my dad has. She holds me to a high standard, and she's competitive and hard-nosed, too. She's always been my support system, through all the highs and the lows.''

Sommer grew up playing multiple sports and loved watching his dad's games. He played basketball, baseball and soccer, and a little football, too. After his freshman year at Carmel, though, he decided to focus solely on baseball. He played year-round at a high level.

"I tried not to go there with the baseball stuff, because he was already getting plenty of that,'' Juergen said. "With all my time in professional soccer, especially overseas and preparing for high-level games, I always knew that was going to be important for Tommy, just getting him ready to handle a competitive sports environment mentally and not crumble and fold in big moments like a lot of athletes do. He picks that up really well.''

The parents get to all of his games, and are Tommy's biggest fans, of course. But they've also pushed him to succeed both off the field and on. And it's worked. He'll graduate with a Finance degree.

"For me, I've always wanted him to be the best person he can be,'' his mother, Susie,  said. "As a student, he's really smart. He knows he'll spend the rest of his life in the real world. We learned that, too. Even if all your athletic goals come true, there's still a lot of life to live.

"I never wanted to sell himself short academically, and he's a great student. And athletically, it's all about me just wanting him to be happy and enjoying himself out there, and doing the best he can. I've very proud of him, obviously, for all the good things he's done at IU. We're such a huge IU family, that it means a lot to all of us. He wants to win, and he'll sacrifice himself to help the team. He's just one of those kids.''

The Sommer family, Susie, Tommy and Juergen. 

The Sommer family, Susie, Tommy and Juergen. 

Carrying the Hoosiers to the finish line

Every weekend, Indiana coach Jeff Mercer hands the ball to Sommer on Friday, and expects good things. He knows what he has there, and he never has to worry about Sommer the person. The stuff may vary from start to start, but the person never wavers. Sommer can handle anything.

"Mechanically, guys can get sideway a little bit, but emotionally you don't worry about the game speeding up on him,'' Mercer said. "You got to believe those guys are going to have the ability to take a deep breath and step off and having a meeting with (pitching coach) Justin (Parker) or the catcher and not let it snowball into something it didn't need to be, where one walk leads to three or four and the outing's over.''

A perfect example of that was his start against Purdue on March 19, an eventual 2-1 win for the Hoosiers. In the first inning, he walked three batters and hit another, but then struck out the side to only allow the one run. It was the only run the Boilermakers scored all day, and the Hoosiers rallied to win with two runs in the eighth inning. 

He found a way to get out of a sticky situation, and then was great the rest of the way. He pitched 6 2/3 innings of two-hit ball and only walked one more batter.

"Tommy's outing against Purdue, he walked the bases loaded in the first inning, and  gave up a run, but he struck out the side and got out of the jam,'' Mercer said. "That very easily could have become a five- or six-run inning and it could have become a real uphill climb. He was stable enough to get through it.

"That is a really nice thing with Tommy. He's mature, he's an adult, if the mechanics get a little off, you trust the fact that he can get it back right and his emotions are not going to snowball and make it worse.''

Sommer is a cerebral pitcher, and he's smart enough to know what's going right – and what's not. 

This year has been different, but he's learned along the way and gotten better for it. 

"It's been extremely frustrating because I've never been that guy who's walked a lot of people,'' Sommer said. "I don't have control problems. I think, early on, I was being too nit-picky, trying to make the perfect pitch all the time. We weren't scoring a lot of runs early in the year and I was trying to be too fine. That was my kryptonite, trying to be too fine. I think that contributed to some poor habits.''

Opposing batters aren't getting too him. He's allowing only 4.6 hits per game in his nine starts

"That's been the irritating part with the walks, because it's not like people are hitting the ball all over the yard against me,'' he said. "But I have been proud of the fact that I've worked my way out of quite a few bad situations, too. When I need to make a big pitch, I can do it. I know I have the stuff.''

Sommer isn't a flame-thrower, and his fastball is usually clocked in the 88-to-91 range. He velocity has continued to tick up though, and with an improved spin rate, he is getting people out with it up in the zone. His breaking ball, cutter and changeup are out pitches as well.

He'll get the call Friday afternoon as the Hoosiers head into the meat of their schedule. They are half-game ahead of Nebraska and Michigan, and they play Rutgers – the hottest team in the league – on Friday and Saturday. Rutgers has won five in a row, all against Michigan and Nebraska,

Then the Hoosiers play Nebraska in New Jersey on Saturday and Sunday, and travel to Michigan next weekend. Every game is a huge game.

"We feel good about what lies ahead,'' Sommer said. "We won some games early when we weren't playing well, but now we're really hitting the ball, and I think we'll be better as starters down the stretch, too. Hitting the way we've been, that makes us a dangerous team.

"There are still a lot of veterans from the 2019 team that won the Big Ten, and we all realize what's at stake this time of year. This is our biggest weekend of the year, I think, against two really good teams, but we're ready too.''

 The stage isn't too big for Sommer, either. It never is.

"I've pitched at Texas in the regional in 2019 and I pitched at LSU last year in front of thousands of people, so all of this pales by comparison,'' he said. "My stuff is significantly better now than it was then, and I'm ready for any situation. I'm really looking forward to it.''

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