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Indiana baseball sweeps Maryland, throws self back into NCAA conversation

Sunday afternoon, Indiana finished torching College Park like Sherman marching through Atlanta. 30 hits and 25 runs in three games led the Hoosiers to a sweep of No. 20 Maryland and has them right back in the mix for an NCAA at-large bid.

IU Athletics

A couple days ago, I wrote an article about how the 2013 and 2014 Indiana baseball teams made what's happening in the Big Ten this season possible. The crux of the article, for those who haven't read it, is that before IU had that terrific run that was unprecedented for the conference in the last 30 years, no one ever could have imagined five Big Ten teams qualifying for the NCAA Tournament. Another part of it was that it was an odd thing because the program responsible for success the conference is having was having no success and did not serve to benefit from the new attention its getting.

And then the Hoosiers went out and beat the hell out of Maryland in three straight games. They jumped 20+ spots in the RPI. They jumped Minnesota and Nebraska in the Big Ten standings (9th to 7th). And they got the national spotlight back.

The Hoosiers know what they did too.

Things are coming together for the Hoosiers, unexpectedly, at just the right time. There are a few factors behind the turn in play. Scott Effross's move from the rotation to the bullpen has been fantastic for Indiana. He's got the ability to throw upwards of five innings in relief on any given weekend if he appears on Friday and Sunday. And so far, he has only given up one run in about 15 innings of relief.

The addition of Nick Ramos has been huge as well. This weekend, Ramos went 6-for-15 (.400) and his defense seems to have made everyone around him better. Isaiah Pasteur, for example, has played two weeks of stellar defense since Ramos returned from injury.

And finally, another factor in this weekend's success was the starting pitching. The Indiana starters (Kelzer, Hart, Baragar) combined for 15.0 IP (each pitcher went 5.0 IP), allowing six runs (four in Kelzer's start on Friday). Those were the three best starts Indiana has had in a month.

Now, the success the Hoosiers had this weekend is not a trend yet. They're still just 5-5 in their last ten, which include the weekday losses to Evansville and Indiana State. And they're still 11-15 since starting the season 15-4. But 5-5 and 11-15 are much better than 2-8 and 8-18. And the three wins that made that difference are also what it has taken to get Indiana back into the NCAA conversation.

With seven games remaining, the Hoosiers appear to control their own destiny when it comes to qualifying for the Big Ten tournament and the big dance. Seven wins should make the decision on the Hoosiers easy for the selection committee. Indiana is currently 51st in the RPI. But a sweep of Long Beach State and a sweep of Ohio State (RPI: 19, even after being swept at Illinois) would move the Hoosiers into the Top-50 and would probably push them close to the Top-40.

Four wins probably is not good enough, especially if two of them come to Ohio State. That would keep them under .500 in the Big Ten, which the committee could view as a big negative on the resume.

Five wins, in my opinion, is where it would get interesting. If they win five games that include either a loss to Ball State (RPI: 144) or a series loss to Long Beach of Bucky. Both of those things would surely harm the RPI ranking for IU, which is something they desperately need to avoid. But if they win five games, losing one to Long Beach and one to Ohio State, the effect may not be much different than winning all seven.

The Hoosiers are in prime position to start the final stretch with three wins in the upcoming series against Long Beach. While the Hoosiers have the week off, allowing Effross to recover from his long innings, Ramos to refresh himself after two grueling weeks that followed his return, and Lemonis to make sure the focus is there, the Dirtbags play a midweek game in Vegas against UNLV and will travel 2,000 miles to Bloomington for the series. Frankly, if Indiana can't capitalize on the scheduling and travel advantage they'll have this weekend, they don't deserve a tournament spot.

But right now, the bottom line is that this weekend, Chris Lemonis's club looked like the Hoosiers from February and March and everyone noticed it. They pitched well, pounded out base hit after base hit, and came up clutch every time the situation demanded it. Baseball in Bloomington the next two weekends is going to be fun and intense and every game should have a playoff feel to it.

If the same team that crushed Maryland shows up, we may just see postseason baseball after all. And that's remarkable given where we were a few days ago.