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2017 NCAA baseball tournament: Indiana needs to overcome its bullpen woes

If the Hoosiers want to make a postseason run, they’ll have to do a better job at closing games out.

Coach Chris Lemonis calls for Kade Kryszko to enter Friday night’s game against Minnesota.
Auston Matricardi

If you watched Indiana’s run in the Big Ten Tournament, you probably noticed the poor performance of their bullpen. But this wasn’t just a one-off issue. This has been a trend over the course of the season.

The numbers that the Indiana bullpen put up this season look alright on paper. The IU bullpen has outperformed the starters in ERA, WHIP, hits per nine innings, and strikeouts per nine innings so far.

If you want to truly rate the performance of the 14 relievers that made up the Indiana bullpen this season, you have to dig deeper and look at the context of each game.

Out of the 57 games Indiana has played so far, the bullpen has been used in 55 of them. This is because Brian Hobbie threw a couple of complete games earlier in the season.

Let’s break down those 55 games into groups:

  • On 27 occasions, the Indiana bullpen did its job. It held a lead, kept the team in a game, etc. These were good outings by the bullpen that usually turned into wins for the Hoosiers.
  • There were nine instances where Indiana lost despite a strong performance by the bullpen. These games generally consisted of the starting pitcher having a rough outing or the Hoosier offense not getting the pitching staff enough run support.
  • In six games this season, the bullpen was handed a lead, and they almost blew it. These games should have been sound wins for the Hoosiers, but ended much closer.
  • Four times the bullpen was handed a deficit and asked to limit the damage, and then they failed. These games could have been much closer than the final score shows, but the bullpen couldn’t stop the bleeding.
  • Lastly, there were nine that the Hoosier relievers were handed a lead and just blew it. In these games, they generally allowed a handful of runs to cross the plate to lose the game.

To sum it up, in 27 out of the 55 games in which the bullpen was used, it had a positive impact. In nine other games, the Hoosier relievers had little impact, or the game was decided by other factors such as a huge offensive output by IU or a bad outing by a starting pitcher. In the other 19, or 35% of all games, the Indiana bullpen had a negative impact on the game as a group.

This isn’t good! When you get deep into a game, having a strong bullpen brings a peace of mind to the rest of the team, as well as the fans. If your bullpen is good enough, it might even give your team a mental edge over its opponent. On the other hand, if you have a roller coaster of a bullpen, it could have the opposite effect.

Having a strong bullpen is also key to making a deep run in the postseason. This Indiana team could have won the Big Ten Tournament if not for a blown lead by the pen. In their second game against Minnesota, the Hoosiers were cruising to a win behind a strong performance by Andrew Saalfrank and a handful of runs by the IU offense. Then they went to the pen, which gave up six runs over three innings to lose the game 9-8.

They almost blew it against Michigan the day before. Indiana was up 4-3 after eight innings of play. Matt Lloyd took the mound in an attempt to close it out, but gave up the tying run after hitting two batters. The game went to extras and the Hoosiers had to burn another arm in Cal Krueger, but they ended up winning in the 13th inning.

I know that revisionist history is sometimes frowned upon, but it is warranted in this situation. Indiana has a record of 33-22-2 right now. If the bullpen doesn’t blow those nine games, they’re sitting at 42-13-2 right now, which would be one of the best records in the country.

Two of those games blown by the bullpen were against Big Ten foes. If Indiana wins those two games, one against Purdue and the other against Nebraska, they finish with a conference record of 16-7-1, which would have been enough to give Indiana the top seed in last weekend’s tournament, rather than the sixth seed that they actually got.

In this revised history, the Hoosiers would have drawn Purdue in their first game, with a potential matchup against Minnesota or Maryland in the second round. That would have been more favorable than having to take on Minnesota to open the tournament.

The performance of the bullpen can have far-reaching effects on a season, and it will become especially important next weekend, as Indiana prepares for the Lexington Regional.