The news came as a surprise to Jeff Mercer, who learned mere hours before last week’s series against Penn State was set to begin that he would not be in the dugout as planned. A positive test for COVID-19 meant the Indiana head coach had to go — back home, away from the ballpark, and away from the team.
He followed instructions, drove away from Bart Kaufman Field and began his mandatory 10-day quarantine period, the latest quirk in a young season already full of them. In the week since Mercer tested positive, his symptoms have remained mild. But due to protocols, he’ll miss this weekend’s home set against Purdue as he continues to sequester at home.
None of this is ideal, Mercer acknowledges, but — just like with most things in a pandemic — he’s adjusting and trying to make the most of his unusual setup.
“The show goes on, with or without any one individual,” Mercer said.
Indeed it does — just as it did last weekend. When Mercer’s positive test was confirmed, the Hoosiers activated their COVID contingency plan, with pitching coach Justin Parker sliding into Mercer’s chair. Before and after every game of the series, Mercer and his staff teleconferenced to share ideas and assessments. Then, at the end of each call, Mercer tried to make something clear to Parker and the rest of his assistants:
Do whatever you think is best.
“I always tell those guys, ‘It’s your call. I trust you. Do what you feel is right, trust your gut and trust your instincts.’” Mercer said. “I’m involved. I’ve helped with the practice plans this week and communicated what my two cents is, but at the end of the day, they’re going to do what they feel is best and that’ll be the right move.”
Parker took advantage of the opportunity in the Penn State series, steering the Hoosiers to a four-game sweep over the back-to-back doubleheaders on Saturday and Sunday. During the games, he continued to call pitches from the dugout as he normally would. He also called the defensive alignments and set the lineups, duties he’ll continue to juggle when Purdue comes to town this weekend.
As Mercer said, the show goes on.
“I was the happiest guy in the world that the show went on without me,” he joked.
With Barr out, Rowe stepped up
Parker needed to dip into his bench early in Sunday’s second game when an awkward, first-inning slide by Cole Barr forced the Hoosiers’ third baseman out of the game. Enter freshman Brennan Rowe, who did not disappoint.
The first-year fill-in collected two hits in three at-bats, including a single in his first collegiate plate appearance. Streaming the game back at home, Mercer liked what he saw.
“He comes in and makes three or four good plays on wet turf,” Mercer said. “He comes in and gets two base hits, puts the third ball in play. He had really quality at-bats and followed our approach to a T.”
As for Barr, Mercer did not disclose specifics of the junior’s injury, but did mention that he expects him to return soon.
“I think he’s feeling better each day,” Mercer said. “It’s going to be a day-to-day thing. He called me right afterward and was frustrated. He ran through a stop sign. That’s the first thing he told me. He said, ‘Are you gonna be mad that I ran through the stop sign?’ I said, ‘You’re right. I am mad at you.’ But he’ll be fine.”
Indiana’s pitching staff leads the nation in two categories through the limited sample size of two weekends: hits allowed per game (3.51) and runs allowed per game (1.91).
The bullpen is a major reason why.
Through their first 20 2⁄3 innings, Indiana relievers are working to a 1.31 ERA while holding hitters to a .143 average.
“Guys are really embracing their roles and being where their feet are at in their roles,” Mercer said. “Everybody wants to throw on Fridays. Everybody wants to hit in the three-hole. Well, you have an opportunity when you come in the game, regardless of your role, to be the best that you can in the moment. ... Those guys have been outstanding in their roles and in their commitment to impacting in a positive way.”
Perhaps most impressive to Mercer is that his relievers are getting it done in high-stress situations. Of the eight games so far, five have been decided by three runs or less. There have been a bunch of high leverage scenarios where IU has needed a steady hand, and the bullpen has delivered.
“I love the fact that we’ve played a lot of close games early in the season,” Mercer said. “It just hardens a team. It unifies a team and it prepares them for late in the season. We’ve had to hand the ball off in close games to the bullpen and those guys have come through and been trustworthy. That speaks volumes to their mental state, their competitiveness and, obviously, the preparation from Coach Parker, who is absolutely the best in the business.”
Weekend rotation set
Here’s how IU’s staff will shake out for the Purdue series ...
Friday: Tommy Sommer (2-0, 1.42 ERA)
Saturday: McCade Brown (2-0, 0.64 ERA)
Sunday: Gabe Bierman (0-1, 2.70 ERA)