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Bullpen will be key to postseason success for IU

With postseason play beginning on Wednesday the Hoosiers will start to lean on their relievers more and more

Braden Scott delivers a pitch at Victory Field earlier this season against Ball State. The southpaw has slowly emerged as an important part of the IU Bullpen.
Auston Matricardi

Kelvin Herrera and the Royals, Andrew Miller and the Indians, Aroldis Chapman and the Cubs. Three superstar relievers that helped power their teams deep into the postseason in recent years. Of course those guys didn’t do it on their own. Each team had some other guys that could come out of the pen to impact games positively and good teams in general, but with games on the line, in the tensest of moments, the bullpen is the group of guys that tends to be relied upon most.

This fact holds true in the college game. When a team gets to the postseason its pitching depth is tested, potentially playing four or five games in three days against high-caliber teams in order to win a regional. On top of that it isn’t as common that starting pitchers go seven or eight innings in college as it is in the pros. Circumstances like that can put plenty of stress on any pitching staff, let alone one that’s thin.

With the importance of the bullpen in mind and the postseason quickly approaching IU stands in an interesting situation. There’s some talent in the pen, but there isn’t a lot of it that’s thoroughly proven. Over the course of the season it’s been a group in flux with the main group of contributors changing, guys going in and out because of injuries, and some seemingly coming out of nowhere to play a part.

This group will be crucial to IU’s postseason run however long it may stretch. In fact the length of the run might come down to how well the relievers can perform.

Matt Lloyd has been closing games for the Hoosiers for three years now and he’s been great in that role. The senior has pitched in 48 games for IU in that period, collecting 21 saves, seven wins and just five losses in 70 innings. Each season his workload has gone down on the bump. As a sophomore he was almost exclusively deployed as the designated hitter which allowed him the freedom to get to the bullpen and warm up as needed, but over the last two seasons he’s played in the field much more often which has kept him off the mound in certain situations. That would be something to be concerned about, but it appears that IU head coach Jeff Mercer has figured out the solution. If you don’t want to have to worry about not being able to deploy the best arm in your bullpen because he’s in the field there’s a pretty easy answer—get him out of the field.

Recently the IU utilityman has been returned to the DH spot, especially in big games where he could be needed on the mound. It would be safe to expect that he’ll be in the same role during IU’s postseason run. He’ll be called upon in the biggest spots and expected to deliver, but he’s the kind of player that can handle that role. He comes through for IU time and time again both on the mound and at the plate, so much so that Mercer has at times labeled him “the baddest man alive” and referred to him as “Batman”.

So far this season Lloyd has pitched in 13 games, posting a 1.80 earned run average and five saves. He did get tagged with one loss which came against No. 9 Louisville just over a week ago.

Lloyd isn’t the only Hoosier that has closed games this season. Over the last couple of weeks there has been a pair of relievers that Mercer has appeared to grow more confident in, using them in big spots that they might not have been used in earlier this year.

Sophomore Tommy Sommer was IU’s Sunday starter when this season started. After he suffered an injury and Andrew Saalfrank took over that role he moved to the bullpen. What the left-hander offers is a skill set that is somewhat unique. As a former rotation piece and occasional spot starter he has the ability to stretch out and pitch several innings. Earlier this season against Purdue Sommer came out of the bullpen to throw six one-hit innings in relief of McCade Brown which was crucial to an IU win. The Carmel, Indiana native ended the regular season with a 4-3 record and a 3.48 ERA as well as nearly nine strikeouts per nine innings.

Gabe Bierman’s role has been slowly getting larger as well. The freshman is similar to Sommer in that he has also served as a spot starter this season, which allows him to stretch out and eat up innings as well. He’s shown a lot of promise during his first season in Bloomington, working to a 3-0 record and a 3.73 ERA, but the best he’s looked this season was almost certainly against Michigan. During the second game of that series he entered the game to pitch three perfect innings, striking out the final eight batters he faced, to earn his first career save as well as Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors. Bierman also threw three shutout innings to close out the final game of last weekend’s series against rutger, sealing IU’s first Big Ten championship since 2014. What makes that feat more impressive is that he did it not too long after his father passed away.

”I really want to commend Gabe Bierman,” Mercer said after the game. “Gabe lost his dad last week on Friday. What an incredible job by him. What incredible resiliency and toughness.”

”Gabe’s transformation this year has been incredible,” he continued. “One of the better ones I’ve seen in my coaching career. I’m just really proud of him and happy for him that he could go out there and finish that ball game and represent his family the way that I know he would want to.”

Following the game Bierman sent this tweet:

Bierman and Sommer could both potentially serve as IU’s fourth starter or as setup men over the next few weeks.

Other than Sommer there’s one more lefty who will play a big role in the bullpen—Braden Scott. He didn’t get a lot of time on the mound early in the season, pitching just two innings in IU’s first 15 games, but as the season has progressed he’s continued to improve to the point where Mercer trusted him to pitch two vital innings against Louisville and he performed well. He gave up just one hit and struck out one batter, holding the Cardinals scoreless.

Following that performance Mercer spoke about the southpaw’s growth:

There may be some cause for concern as Scott was roughed up a bit in three consecutive outings against Minnesota, Illinois and Michigan over the last few weeks, but he fared well in other outings against Iowa, Maryland, Minnesota and Louisville throughout the season. Heading into postseason play he owns a 1-0 record and a 4.19 ERA. He’s struck out 29 batters in 19 innings, giving up 18 hits as well.

He could also be a candidate to serve in the setup role, but he could easily be IU’s lefty specialist as well.

There aren’t many true fireballers on this staff. Of the guys already mentioned the only one that fits the bill is Lloyd. Add Grant Sloan to the list as well.

When the righty from Zionsville, Indiana steps on the mound it’s not hard to tell what his most notable pitch is—he throws heat. The sophomore has a fastball that touches 94 mph as well as some improved complimentary pitches.

That comes with a downside of course. When guys do square up one of those fastballs it flies. That might not be too much of an issue at TD Ameritrade Park, the site of the Big Ten Tournament, but it could come into play in a regional.

This season he has a 3.74 ERA in 21 appearances. Unlike the other pieces in the pen he isn’t one that could be stretched out across multiple innings. Mercer has mentioned that Sloan is better in short bursts and that’s how he’s been utilized basically all season. He’s thrown just under 22 innings, striking out 21 batters.

Expect for him to play the same role as the postseason begins. He could be deployed often to come in and overpower guys to get three outs, especially in the Big Ten Tournament.

After his first year in Bloomington the role that Connor Manous would play moving forward was a bit of a question mark. Would he start games? We he be a bullpen piece? That was solved pretty quickly. He has been IU’s most used reliever this season, coming out of the pen in each of his 26 appearances this season. He’s also been pretty consistent, posting a 2.63 ERA and a 1-0 record as well as a pair of saves and a .172 batting average against. He did get beat up against Coastal Carolina in March and against Michigan two weeks ago, giving up three earned runs in two-thirds innings in each game, but other than that he’s been rock solid, giving up no more than one earned run in the rest of his outings.

He should be another piece that will be relied upon to bridge between the rotation and Lloyd and could potentially close out games if Lloyd is unavailable for whatever reason.

Along with all of the regulars there is also a trio of younger guys who have had to deal with injuries or rehab either before or during the season. Alex Franklin, Austin Long and Braydon Tucker could all play a part in the postseason run as well.

Franklin didn’t play his senior season of high school ball and it was questionable as to whether or not he would be ready to go at the start of this season, but when the Hoosiers hit the road for Memphis he was ready to go. He’s shown plenty of potential this season despite some mixed results as both a starter and reliever. He has a 5.91 ERA and a 1-0 record as well as 13 strikeouts in the 11 eleven innings he’s pitched.

Long was out of commission to start this season—his sophomore year—but made his debut during the Iowa series and had a perfect ERA through his first five appearances before giving up a pair of runs in one inning last week against rutger.

Tucker missed two-and-a-half months with an injury between February and May, but returned against Louisville and looked great. In two innings against the Cardinals he allowed just two hits and no runs. Because of the injury he hasn’t pitched a lot this season, but following the Louisville game Mercer said that the freshman was a “shot in the arm” in the middle relief innings.

These guys probably won’t be featured heavily over the next few weeks, but they’re the depth of this bullpen and it wouldn’t be surprising if at least one of them has to contribute at one point or another.

These are the pitchers that comprise the Hoosier bullpen. They’ll be called upon one after another to take the mound in high-pressure situations with games, possibly championships and inevitably the entire season on the line. From Matt Lloyd down to the youngsters, each one of them has something to contribute and it’ll be needed if the Hoosiers plan to make the deep postseason run that they’re capable of.