ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Two weeks ago was the biggest baseball weekend of the year, and then this weekend at Michigan was the biggest. And now?
Well, welcome to the biggest WEEK of the year for Indiana's baseball team. The high-pressure, high-stakes, high-anxiety games just keep getting bigger and bigger. The value of each game – of each inning, each at-bat, each pitch – is getting ramped up even further as the Hoosiers try to defend their 2019 Big Ten title with a very busy stretch of five games in seven days.
Their title chances took a minor body blow here in Ann Arbor, losing two of three to the Wolverines, including Sunday's rubber game, where the Hoosiers fell 6-1. They sit one game behind Nebraska, in a virtual tie for second with Michigan.
The good news? Indiana gets to see Nebraska this week in Bloomington. They'll play Friday night and Saturday night, with a boatload of marbles on the line. (FYI, both are on national TV, too). But that's not all. With just eight games remaining, every game matters now, and that include's Tuesday's makeup game in Bloomington against Illinois, a team that just took two of three against Iowa, and Sunday and Monday's two games against Ohio State, a team that swept Indiana in a four-game series in early April.
And we won't even fast-forward yet to the final weekend, three games at Maryland. The Terps might be the hottest team in the league, in fourth place now just 1.5 games behind the Hoosiers. They swept Purdue over the weekend, outscoring them 23-3.
In other words, it's all there for the taking. Still. The Big Ten title. An NCAA Tournament berth. All right there.
"Every single one of our goals for this season are all still right there in front of us,'' Indiana coach Jeff Mercer said Sunday night. "We've got eight games left, and none of them are going to be easy. We just have to play well every day, and that starts with Illinois on Tuesday.
"Look, we have a very good team, and I really like these guys. I love their effort, but we're just going to have to be at our best every day from here on out. We can't have days like this (on Sunday) where we don't do certain things well. I comes back to bite you too often. It did today, and it will going forward, too. Every team we play the rest of the way will take advantage of us if we don't take the right approach.''
Mercer wasn't happy with Indiana's hitters on Sunday. Michigan starter Jacob Denner was good, but Mercer felt like his hitters helped him too much, too. He pitched 6 1/3 innings, and allowed just one run and four hits, and the Hoosiers walked only once against him.
"Sure, he was good, but we did a very poor job of following our game plan against him,'' Mercer said. "We got ahead of ourselves. We were overswinging and expanding the zone. We helped him out way too much.
"I told them after the game, the hitters, that they didn't carry their weight today. I'm not asking for 13 hits a day, but I am asking for a sound approach, and we didn't do that. We gave away far too many at-bats today, and that's not something we've been doing lately, for a good month or so. It just can't happen. Not now. Not against teams like this.''
The quiet bats, outside of Indiana right fielder Morgan Colopy who had a homer and a double by ripping balls away to the opposite field, spoiled another solid outing by Indiana pitcher Gabe Bierman. He wasn't as dominating as he had been in his previous five starts – he had a 4-0 record and a 1.26 ERA – but he kept the Hoosiers in the game.
"I thought Gabe was outstanding, and he really battled,'' Mercer said. "You have to remember that he was facing a really good offense, really good one through nine, and they were playing at home with a lot of confidence. And he still kept them in check. I feel like he pitched good enough to us to win, to be quite honest. We just didn't give him any support.''
Michigan broke the game open with three runs in the eighth inning, and they came on some shoddy play defensively. Second baseman Paul Toetz mishandled a ground ball behind second that was called an infield hit instead of an error, and then he messed up a pop-up in shallow center field that should have been caught but was ruled a double. Then, on the third play, he had a throwing error to first.
It was a rough go. Toetz, a freshman from Greendale, Wis., has hit well all season but he has a team-leading nine errors. And both shortstops, Jeremy Houston and James Espalin, have six errors each.
"Our middle defense, to be honest, has been a concern of mine for a while right now,'' Mercer said. "We're just making too many mistakes and giving teams too many extra outs. And that's a talented group, too, so it shouldn't be happening. We'll just have to keep working.''
It's going to be an interesting week to watch how Mercer and pitching coach Justin Parker handle the pitching staff, with these five games in seven days. They've used lefty Ty Bothwell often as a starter in four-game weekends this year, and he didn't throw at all against Michigan, so the guess would be we'll see him Tuesday against Illinois.
All five games are big, but the two games against Nebraska are the biggest on Friday and Saturday. Normal Friday starter Tommy Sommer had to leave this weekend's game in the third inning after he had a fingernail split on his throwing hand.
Mercer said that Sommer "felt much better'' on Sunday after filing the nail down, but he didn't want to project whether he'd be ready to pitch on Friday with the title on the line.
It's also possible to ponder moving McCade Brown and Bierman, Indiana's two hottest pitchers, up a day for Nebraska, but they've both thrown a lot of pitches lately and going on short rest might be an issue. Bierman, for example, has thrown 110, 114 and 111 pitches in his last three starts.
Brown threw 103 pitches Saturday in the big win against Michigan. There might be less concern about moving him up a day, but Bierman, who's been insanely good for a month now, has carried a heavy pitch load.
In any case, it's the biggest week of the year for Indiana.
Related stories on Indiana baseball
- MICHIGAN TAKES SERIES (Sunday): Indiana struggled offensively and fell to Michigan 6-1 in the series finale with Michigan, and now are one game out of first in the Big Ten. CLICK HERE
- HOOSIERS BOUNCE BACK (Saturday): Indiana got another great start from McCade Brown and Kip Fougerousse had a career-high four RBIs in the Hoosiers' 13-8 win over Michigan. CLICK HERE
- TOM BREW COLUMN: Can the Hoosiers bounce back from the worst blowout loss of the season? CLICK HERE
- MICHIGAN WINS SERIES OPENER (Friday): Michigan puts up a couple of crooked numbers and blows out Indiana 10-3, the Hoosiers worst loss of the season. 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