COLUMBUS, Ohio – Every couple of months this year, I've driven over to Columbus for an Indiana-Ohio State showdown. The results have been the same, on every trip.
I wrote a bunch of words and took a few mild shots after Indiana's football loss to Ohio State in November, and ripped away after a bad Indiana basketball loss in January. And I was there in Columbus this weekend, when Indiana's first-place baseball team bungled their way through a four-game sweep at the hands of the Buckeyes, playing as poorly as I've seen an IU baseball team play in a long, long time.
And after I wrote my game story and headed west into the setting sun on I-70 on Sunday night, several texts and messages got me thinking. Is it a double standard for me to rip a little on Tom Allen and his guys, and rip a lot on Archie Miller – the former basketball coach at Indiana – and his players after a brutal, uninspired performance and not rip on Indiana's first-place baseball team when then do the same thing?
It's probably a good journalism school debate, partly because there are hundreds of thousands of eyeballs on Indiana football these days, and millions of eyeballs on Indiana basketball, then, now and forever.
Indiana baseball? It thrives in relative obscurity. So is it fair and reasonable – or even worthwhile – to criticize Indiana's coaches or baseball players during bad stretches in the middle of a very long season when there's only a couple thousand people at the most who really care anyway?
This is how it works. Shots taken at Indiana football for the mistakes they made in a 42-35 loss at Ohio State that could have been an epic victory. Shots taken at Indiana basketball for horrific starts in a loss at Ohio State, players and coaches alike for not being ready to play.
Should there be shots taken at this Indiana baseball team? After all, they were outscored 18-7, in four losses, made eight errors and just as many blunders that weren't officially scored that way. They made MORE errors than run scored.
They were that brutal. Eight errors, seven runs. Think about that for a minute.
Double-standard is probably the wrong phrase in this discussion. Football is different in an eight-game schedule. If Indiana wins at Ohio State that day, they probably go undefeated and win the Big Ten and it becomes the greatest Indiana football season ever. The stakes are so much higher every Saturday.
And basketball? It's Indiana, so every game matters – good, bad of otherwise. But baseball is different, and not just for the limited number of people who are actually big-time Indiana baseball fans.
It's baseball. College baseball. It's a long, long schedule, even in a condensed season like 2021. There's always another game right around the corner. A lot of them, really.
And when I made the commitment to add Indiana baseball coverage to the agenda here at Sports Illustrated Indiana, I suppose it comes with the necessity to be critical when it's deserved.
And this weekend, it's definitely deserved.
"There's no real way to explain it. We just didn't play very well,'' Indiana coach Jeff Mercer told me during an evening phone interview. "I'm as perplexed as anyone else after watching that. Before we got here, we had been playing well, especially our pitching and defense. And we've handled adversity well, too.
"I thought we handled having several coaches out with COVID these past two or three weeks, but I don't know. Maybe that was more of an issue than I thought. Maybe some of that caught up to us. I just don't know. I do know that it was hard to be away from them for 10 days, and it was hard for (pitching coach) Justin (Parker) too. This is certainly not what we're used to seeing from Indiana baseball.''
Easy schedule give off wrong vibe?
A week ago, Indiana was 11-2 and cruising. They had some of the the best starting pitching in the country, and their defense was superb. But was it a mirage?
Eight of Indiana's 11 wins have come against Minnesota (2), Penn State (4) and Purdue (2), the three teams at the bottom of the Big Ten standings. Were the first-place Hoosiers really any good, or were they just beating up on the bottom feeders in the league?
That's why I was looking forward to seeing Indiana this weekend at Ohio State, because the Buckeyes were the first legitimate Big Ten title contender on their schedule, despite some of their own early struggles.
And it was an unmitigated disaster. They even blew a two-run lead late on Sunday, making for a long bus ride home to Bloomington.
But here's what's weird about baseball. A ground ball that turns into an error, either on the fielding play or the throw, is no different whether it's hit by a Purdue player or an Ohio State player. Before this five-game losing streak, Indiana made all those plays routinely. This weekend, they didn't.
Indiana hitters also struck out 46 times in four games. There's always that good baseball debate that struggles at the plate often carry out to the field, as well. That certainly might have happened here, too.
To be honest, pitching wasn't really a problem this weekend, because their numbers got skewed from the brutal defense. Five of Ohio State's 17 runs were officially unearned because of errors, but five others – at least five — scored where Indiana failed to convert what should have been routine plays.
They also struck out 17 times in seven innings on Saturday afternoon against Ohio State starter Seth Lonsway, someone that Mercer knows well because he recruited him at Wright State before coming to Indiana in 2019.
All those gifts added up to one obvious thing – a loss.
"No one is more disappointed in how poorly we played on Saturday, other than those kids in the room, I suppose. They all want to win, want to win bad,'' Mercer said. "This group, they really do hate losing. But I've known Seth (Lonsway) a long time. I recruited him when I was at Wright State. He's an A-plus kid from an A-plus family. He had been struggling to find himself so far this season, but he found it Saturday. He was spectacular, and he had us completely confused.
"He was throwing his fastball in to righties, and he's got a plus-plus breaking ball. He kept hitting all his spots, and we could never time him up. He put us in a big hole that we couldn't get out of, and I think we had a lot of frustrating at-bats. He sped us up, and we chased and expanded the zone. That's not something we've done during the year. It was out of character for sure.''
Ugliest two innings ever
Saturday's 6-0 loss in the first game of the doubleheader was downright brutal. Sure, Lonsway had something to do with it, but it was hard on the eyes. He struck out all six batters in the first two innings, and in the second, he got those three strikeouts on nine pitches, an immaculate inning. The Hoosiers never once hit the ball.
Indiana also made four errors in the game, two in the second inning. Those were just the official errors. They botched fly balls and pop-ups too, and looked like they'd never played a game with the wind blowing or the sun shining. That's baseball weather in the Midwest in the spring. Several of those miscues were recorded as hits. It was Keystone Cops ugly. It was Bad News Bears ugly.
Getting angry doesn't help
If you lose four college football games in a row, that's a month of agony and misery, and you wonder if you'll ever win another game. If you lose four in a row in college basketball, the sky is definitely falling for two weeks or more, especially at Indiana.
But when you lose four baseball games even in 48 hours, it's not as gut-wrenching,
"Yeah, this time a week ago we were 11-2 and they were all hearing from everyone how great they were,'' Mercer said. "it happens, but you just have to move on. Look, on Friday night we lost 3-2 but we hit six or seven balls really hard but right at people. We played hard and I liked our approach, and a few feet either way with some of those balls, maybe win 5-3 or 6-3 and no one's panicking tonight. That's baseball, and sometimes that happens.
"You can yell and scream, but does that really make us better? Those kids are hurting. It's my job to articulate what our issues were, and to address them and rectify them. Coach them up. Look, we have a lot of really good players, and we have a lot of really good coaches. We have to just fix what went wrong, and get right back at it. There are a lot of games to play still, and despite this weekend, I still have a lot of faith and confidence in this team.''
As well he should. Mercer knows he can hand the ball to a quality starting pitcher every time the Hoosiers play a game. He knows he's got a bullpen that can be just as good, and we didn't even see wicked closer Matt Litwicki all weekend.
That's the big question on this first Monday in April. Is Indiana 11-2 good or 0-5 bad? Obviously, it's somewhere in between. They dropped from first place to fourth, and that matters. In 2019, the last time there was an NCAA baseball tournament, five teams made the field, Indiana, Ohio State, Michigan, Nebraska and Illinois.
Is Indiana still an NCAA Tournament team? Still a Big Ten contender, for both the regular season at tournament titles? Will the Big Ten get five bids again, or fewer?
"It's easy to look at all that and say they need to play better, but I need to coach better, too,'' Mercer said. "And I will. We will. I have no doubt about that.''
Some negative-nelly fans whined on Sunday night that the season was over, and that's ridiculous. In Indiana's next 14 games, they have series with middle-of-the-pack teams Illinois (8-10), Northwestern (10-8), Iowa (9-9), Rutgers (9-8) and last-place Minnesota (3-13).
I could see Indiana going 10-4 during that stretch and sit at 21-11. They play 44 games this year and probably need 25-26 wins to get an at-large bid to the tournament. It's all still there for the taking.
So that's the friendly reminder today. We're 18 games in, with 26 to go. That's a long road, a long, long road.
So, yes, Indiana stunk this weekend. They hit poorly, fielded poorly, didn't execute in key moments and it was a total team disaster, player and coaches alike.
But it's still just one weekend. Learn from yesterday and move on. Show up at 5 p.m. on Friday and start a wining streak against Illinois.
And all will be well.
Related stories on Indiana baseball
- SUNDAY: Hoosiers blow two-run lead late, fall 4-3 to Ohio State to complete a four-game sweep. CLICK HERE
- SATURDAY: Hoosiers swept in doubleheader at Ohio State, losing 6-0 and 5-2 and striking out a whopping 28 times in the two games. CLICK HERE
- FRIDAY: Indiana wastes a good start from Tommy Sommer and only gets three hits in a 3-2 loss to Ohio State in the series opener. CLICK HERE
- HOOSIERS IN THE PROS: There are four former Indiana baseball players on Opening Day rosters in the major leagues. CLICK HERE
- INDIANA SCHEDULE: Here is the complete Indiana baseball schedule this season, with includes 44 games, all against Big Ten foes. CLICK HERE