BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – There's no better time to be at your best than when it matters the most, and that was certainly the case with No. 21 Indiana's starting rotation last weekend during a critical road trip to New Jersey.
On Friday, left-hander Tommy Sommer probably had his best outing of the year in a win over Rutgers, walking just one batter over 6 2/3 innings in an 8-3 win.
On Saturday, McCade Brown took a perfect game into the seventh inning in the Hoosiers' 5-3 win over Rutgers. It was, without a doubt, his best outing of the year.
And on Sunday, Gabe Bierman was brilliant, throwing a complete game in the Hoosiers' 4-2 win over Nebraska that kept the Hoosiers in first place in the Big Ten. He lowered his earned run average to a Big Ten-best 2.26, and it was probably his best game of the season, too, though that line is blurred a big because he's been downright nasty for a month now. Every out has been a ''best outing.''
All three of them, dealing. And dealing when it mattered the most.
"It was an awesome thing to see,'' said Indiana coach Jeff Mercer, who watched his starters post a 1.35 ERA last weekend. "To see the way they responded and to be really good and be competitive, it was great to watch. They were all incredibly dominant.
"All three of them were really good, but watching Gabe on Sunday was like watching a professional. He's got five pitches, and he's throwing them all for strikes in any count whenever and wherever he wants. You just don't see that in college baseball. The starting pitching is such a huge benefit that we have, that they're all cooking at the same time.''
Several Hoosiers called that four-game trip to Jersey against Rutgers and Nebraska the biggest weekend of the year for the first place Hoosiers. And it was. But now the same can be said about this weekend's trip to Ann Arbor for three games with Michigan. The Hoosiers are one game ahead of the Wolverines – they're a half-game ahead of Nebraska – so the Big Ten title is clearly on the line again this week with three weeks to go in the regular season.
Mercer will rely heavily on his big arms, much as he had all year. Sommer and Bierman are both 5-2 on the season, and Brown is 4-2. They all threw a lot of pitches last weekend – Sommer had a career-high 111 pitches, Brown threw 90 pitches in a career-tying seven innings of work and Bierman threw 114 pitches in his complete game, also a career high.
Mercer and pitching coach Justin Parker kept their pitch counts down earlier in the year, and Brown and Bierman have actually had a few weekend off along the way thanks to some weather issues.
So here, in mid-May, they are feeling good after a busy weekend, and are 100 percent heading into Ann Arbor.
"I feel good about where we're at,'' Mercer said. "It's a lot warmer, and we've been really strategic to not extend them, just for this final stretch. You do the best you can to keep them strong, and now it's full-go. You want them to be at their strongest at the end of the season, and that's where we're at with them. They all feel good.''
"Managing pitching, you learn to manage it really well. Learning it early on was a big deal for us and being at their best at the end is important. So they're all full go, and they'll go until their stuff starts to deteriorate, and then we'll bring someone else in, especially now that it's a three-game weekend again.''
Sommer, who had walked four or more hitters in four of his past five starts, had pinpoint control on Friday and allowed just one earned run into the seventh. He talked last week about "finding some things,'' and the improvement showed.
It was the same with Brown. Parker got him a little more upright in his delivery, and they worked on doing a better job of hiding his breaking ball. He was downright nasty, going perfect through six innings, and striking out 11 of the 18 batters he faced.
"They made a few simple adjustments and that really helped him. He got a lot more swings and misses on the curveball,'' Mercer said. "They felt like his breaking ball was a little exposed earlier, and that's why we were getting some takes.
"But he was sensational on Saturday. I looked at Justin in the first inning and told him, 'this cat looks different.' It was great to see McCade be McCade again.''
The Hoosiers will have their hands full with Michigan, one of three Big Ten teams projected into the NCAA Tournament's field of 64 in June along with Indiana and Nebraska. There's a lot on the line, just like last weekend, and the Hoosiers will roll out the big guns once again, still firing on all cylinders. Sommer will start Friday (4 p.m. ET), Brown on Saturday (2 p.m. ET) and Bierman on Sunday in a nationally televised game on ESPN2 at 1 p.m. ET.
They are all well prepared for the moment as the Hoosiers head down the home stretch. They're No. 2 in the country in hits allowed for a reason. This is one heck of a pitching staff.
"Everything that leads up to the season in the fall, we try to prepare them,'' Mercer said. "But the best coaching is done in the moment, in the season, and they get better over the course of the year.
"We've seen that with these guys. They are all very good right now, and you couldn't ask for a better time for them to all be at their best.
Projected NCAA Tournament field
The D1Baseball.com site does a great job of keeping the national pulse of college baseball, and their projected field of 64 seems pretty accurate.
Right now, they have three Big Ten teams in the field – Indiana, Michigan and Nebraska. They have the Hoosiers in the South Bend regional, with top-seed Notre Dame, No. 3 seed Indiana State and No. 4 Central Michigan.
They have Michigan as a No. 2 seed in the Austin, Texas regional along with Texas, Miami and Bryant. Nebraska is a No. 2 seed in the Fayetteville, Ark., regional, along with Arkansas, Oklahoma State and Oral Roberts.
Indiana (23-10) has 11 games remaining, three this weekend at Michigan State and three at Maryland to end the season on May 28-30. In between are five home games, a makeup with Illinois on Tuesday, and then two games each with Nebraska (Friday and Saturday and Ohio State (Sunday and Monday).
Related stories on Indiana baseball
- DEPTH MATTERS: Indiana coach Jeff Mercer loves sticking with an everyday lineup, but veterans who lost their jobs came through in a big way last week. That's why having a deep roster makes a huge difference. Tom Brew column. CLICK HERE
- 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
- 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