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Baseball notes: Matt Litwicki is throwing gas in the closer’s role

Hoosiers head north to East Lansing for a three-game series this weekend

iusportscom.com

With an arm like his, Matt Litwicki can get away with things that other pitchers cannot. Sure, mixing pitches, working both sides of the plate, and just generally having a feel for the moment are all qualities of a successful hurler at the college level and beyond.

But the Indiana closer also enjoys a luxury that few of his counterparts can match.

“He can just pour diesel down the middle of the plate,” IU coach Jeff Mercer said.

Indeed, when your heater flirts with the 100 mile-per-hour threshold, you can do a lot of things on the mound. And right now, Litwicki’s white-hot fastball has allowed him to solidify a role at the back end of IU’s bullpen.

The 6-foot-2 sophomore right-hander from Dyer, Ind. is tied for the Big Ten lead with three saves so far this season, logging scoreless outings in each of his five appearances at the end of Hoosier victories.

“The team is excited when it’s like, ‘Matt is getting up,’” Mercer said. “When you have a great closer — and we’ve had a couple of them through our time coaching — it’s like the game is over and everybody gets excited to give the ball to that guy. You can feel the energy of that with Matt.”

Litwicki’s early-season success has been a long time coming. He missed his freshman season in 2018 due to Tommy John surgery, then made seven appearances during IU’s run to the Big Ten title in 2019. Before last season’s pause, Litwicki worked a total of 10 innings over five outings.

And while he’s always thrown hard, he’s never thrown this hard.

During the 2020 fall ball period, Litwicki worked between 92 to 95 miles per hour. Over the winter, he touched 97 miles per hour a couple of times. But now? Litwicki is hitting 99 miles per hour on the gun, including a couple times during this past weekend’s series against Purdue.

For the season, Litwicki has struck out eight and walked only two over 5.2 scoreless, hitless frames.

“It really has been a continued growth for him, and really is just all coming together for him in the last month,” Mercer said. “I could not be happier for anybody than I am for Matt. ... I’m always excited for him personally because he’s just an awesome kid who has worked. He’s the poster child for investment and hard work paying off. He’s earned it. He’s earned the right to be as good as he is.”

It’s all mental for Houston

It wasn’t exactly the ideal situation for the No. 9 hitter.

Two outs. Bases loaded. Two strikes. And a two-run deficit on the scoreboard in Sunday’s rubber game against Purdue. Jeremy Houston, however, was unbothered by the stage. The IU shortstop slapped a 3-2 pitch through the left side to drive in two runs and knot the game at 2-2 in the second inning.

It was a credit to Houston, who hasn’t had much success at the plate during parts of five seasons in Bloomington. But despite his spotty track record with the bat in his hands, Houston hasn’t stopped working on his approach — both inside and outside of the box. Houston has made a conscious effort to change the way he thinks the game — a lesson Mercer believes is worth passing on to his youngest players.

“Jeremy and I had a conversation (the other day) in a small group setting and I asked Jeremy about his growth throughout his career and what he’s learned,” Mercer said. “One of the things he talked about was, the last two or three years for him, was the way that he talks to himself; his personal self-talk, his personal self-dialogue, and the difference early in his career and later in his career. I think that’s something that gets overlooked tremendously, is how we communicate to ourselves; how we talk to ourselves in the moment of competition.

“You look at Jeremy and his swing is different — he’s worked on his swing, and he’s worked hard to be a better offensive player in many ways — but you see the difference in the guy this past weekend. Bases loaded, two outs, and we didn’t drive a run in earlier in the inning. Jeremy comes up, and that’s a different moment. You have to really be able to handle that mentally to go in and have success there. Talking to him about the difference in his mindset, it’s like, ‘I believe I’m capable of having success in those moments, but I don’t know that I always believed I was capable of having success, or at least I didn’t talk to myself in a way that allowed me to consistently go out and succeed.”

After three weekends of play, Houston ranks fourth on the team with five RBI.

Toetz-ing care of business

Freshman second baseman Paul Toetz is getting to know first base coach Derek Simmons quite well. That’s to say, Toetz can’t stop getting on base.

Toetz has hit safely in all 11 games for IU this season, including back-to-back multi-hit performances this past weekend against Purdue. For the season, the Wisconsin native is 13-for-39 (.333) with five doubles, a homer and eight RBI, offering consistent production in the middle of Indiana’s order.

“He’s tough mentally, which I know is cliche,” Mercer said. “But sports at this level, especially baseball, you have to have a stiff spine. You gotta be able to handle the success and also the failure. That’s where most guys can’t handle it. Paul is really tough mentally and he’s really smart. You can see him learning in the middle of a game. He makes a mistake and he doesn’t do the same thing two and three and four times. He’s a tough kid who’s intelligent and he applies in real time what he’s learning. Those are the two factors that have allowed him to improve quickly and be an impactful player.”

Around the horn

  • IU’s 9-2 start to Big Ten play is its best record at the beginning of the conference slate since opening the 2016 league schedule 11-2.
  • IU ranks first nationally in hits allowed per nine innings (4.5) and WHIP (0.93), fifth in team ERA (2.49) and sixth in strikeouts per nine (12.2).
  • Drew Ashley has reached base in 36 consecutive games dating to the end of the 2019 season.
  • Tommy Sommer (2-0, 1.40 ERA) will start Friday’s 3:05 p.m. ET game at Michigan State.
  • McCade Brown (2-1, 2.37 ERA) will start Saturday’s 1:05 p.m. ET game against the Spartans.
  • Gabe Bierman (1-1, 3.38 ERA) will start Sunday’s 1:05 p.m. ET finale in East Lansing.