IU baseball strikes out in NCAA tournament opener: ‘Some of our teammates are just hitting like a bunch of babies.LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Flailing at-bats, a struggling starter and poor decision making behind him crashed Indiana into the losers’ bracket Friday afternoon at the Louisville Regional, a position with which the Hoosiers have become too familiar.
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For the third-straight year, the Hoosiers lost their opening game in NCAA tournament play after an 8-7 loss to Illinois State. The No. 2-seed Hoosiers struck out 18 times.
“It really comes down to, I’m not sure if there’s a better word for this, but we acted like we panicked for about five innings,” first-year coach Jeff Mercer said. “You have to be emotionally stable in moments that were heightened and maybe that’s not the right word, but we tried to do too much.
“We tried to take individual at-bats in a team game.”
After a first-inning Elijah Dunham home run put Indiana ahead 2-0, everything seemed to fall No. 3 Illinois State’s way.
IU starter Pauly Milto couldn’t find his rhythm early, allowing the leadoff man to reach in each of the game’s first four innings. Milto struggled to miss Illinois State bats up and down the lineup, and as a result had to pitch around base runners most of the afternoon.
The Redbirds barreled up the ball well, and when they didn’t, they found empty space in the shallow outfield turf at Louisville’s Patterson Stadium.
“We didn’t help him either,” Mercer said, referring to a number of gaffes in the field that worked in Illinois State’s favor. “While Pauly wasn’t crisp early, we didn’t do a lot to help him keep double plays in order, which you have to against a team like this.”
Milto managed to work a quiet fourth and fifth but got in trouble he couldn’t resolve in the sixth.
Mercer pulled him with runners on, and Gabe Bierman couldn’t clean things up until seven runs had crossed. Milto finished with seven earned runs allowed on 14 hits, with just three strikeouts, in 5 1/3 innings.
Indiana rallied once Redbirds starter Brent Headrick, who struck out 14 Hoosiers over six innings, finally exited in the seventh.
The free-swinging Hoosiers suddenly found their patience against the Redbirds’ bullpen. A one-out Grant Richardson walk triggered a sequence that saw IU plate five runs and send a total of 11 batters to the plate in that half inning. Indiana drew four walks in the frame, and even scored a run when catcher Ryan Fineman was hit by a pitch. The Hoosiers ultimately needed just three hits in the frame to tie the score.
It was a marked departure from the poor, sometimes-meek at-bats the Hoosiers managed against Headrick. Their 18 total strikeouts piled onto a tally that led the Big Ten this season.
Over its past three games, all of them losses, Mercer’s club has struck out 38 times.
“Lately, we haven’t been hitting that good. I think it fundamentally comes down to our players’ confidence,” Dunham said bluntly. “I feel like a lot of guys are not confident in the box right now. It just kind of looks like they’re giving up at-bats. It looks like they’re just trying not to strike out, which is not the mentality to have at the plate.
“Some of our teammates are just hitting like a bunch of babies, and it’s really frustrating.”
Illinois State relievers combined to throw 55 pitches in the home seventh. Then their lineup backstopped them right away, stringing together a single and a double off IU reliever Connor Manous to retake the lead, 8-7, in the top of the eighth.
Redbirds reliever Dalton Harvey shut things down in the eighth and ninth, crashing Indiana into the losers’ bracket.
IU will play the loser of No. 1 seed Louisville’s Friday nightcap against Illinois-Chicago in an elimination game at 11 a.m. Saturday.
Injury was added to insult in the Illinois State sixth, when centerfielder Matt Gorski — one of Indiana’s most important players — exited with an apparent hand or wrist injury. Gorski’s hand appeared to get caught under him and twisted as he attempted a sliding catch, and Mercer made the decision to pull him.
Mercer said postgame that preliminary checks suggested Gorski might have suffered some sort of strain, and that IU would reassess his status before Saturday’s game.
“Matt’s obviously one of the more talented guys we have,” junior first baseman Scotty Bradley said. “The kid busts his butt every single day and it’s really tough to see him go down. But it’s next man up.”
With or without Gorski, Indiana now faces an all-too-familiar uphill battle. The Hoosiers must win four games in the next three days if their season is to continue beyond Louisville.
This season’s success will always outweigh its disappointment, with Mercer winning a regular-season Big Ten title in his first year in charge.
But a program still striving to break the regional-and-done cycle it has been locked into since 2014 looks likely to see it continue into 2020. Mercer knows where his challenge now lies.
“You have to be able to be emotionally stable and control what you can control from the beginning of the game. And certainly, that rests on my shoulders,” Mercer said. “That’s my responsibility: to make sure we’re in a mental place to be tougher and be more competitive and try to fight the game, and not fight an opponent.”