Had steady rain not washed away Indiana’s series finale with Illinois last Sunday, the Hoosiers would have trotted out a lineup with five freshmen. Paul Toetz would have batted fourth and played second base, Kip Fougerousse would have hit fifth and manned first, Morgan Colopy would have filled the six slot and covered right field, Ethan Vecrumba would have batted seventh and fulfilled the designated hitter duties and Tank Espalin would have batted eighth and gone to work at shortstop.
That’s a lot of youth for a team with NCAA Tournament aspirations, especially one that now feels the pressure to not only win series but sweep them. The good news for Indiana is that its youngest players are quite talented, giving the Hoosiers decent depth across the diamond. The hard part, though, is finding ways to get all those new guys — and the rest of the roster — consistently involved during a season where there are no midweek games, which are often treated as the training grounds for both the newcomers and the older reserves.
In an ideal world, Indiana coach Jeff Mercer would have a set lineup entering the second half of the season. But things are still far from ideal and a combination of factors has forced Mercer to do one of the things he hates the most.
That is, juggling his lineup.
“I’m the antithesis of that, except that’s the one thing I’ve done a lot of,” Mercer said. “I don’t like doing it, but at the same time, when you don’t know exactly what you have, you’re trying to put guys in positions to be successful and get them off to a good start.”
That’s especially true for the freshman class, a mix of players that includes those who were around for the all-too-brief 2020 season and those who only enrolled in Bloomington mere months ago. For Mercer, crafting a lineup this season has been one of the biggest challenges he’s tried to navigate. It’s a multi-part equation that includes using all the information available to him, such as matchups, swing-and-miss data and foul ball rates to judge who belongs in the starting nine.
The problem is, IU has played only 20 games of a watered-down, conference-only schedule, so the sample size isn’t what Mercer would call reliable. That means, when he goes to fill out his lineup card each weekend, he’s also factoring in old-school considerations such as weighing who recently took a good round of BP, who seems to be feeling confident, and who is scrimmaging well during the week.
“Without the midweek games, you do the best that you can,” Mercer said. “But when the lights turn on, guys are different. I wish they wouldn’t be. Some guys are really able to elevate themselves in the moment. Some guys are not. You don’t know until the lights are on and you’re in the moment and you’re playing the games. I also have to understand that we have a lot of young guys. There’s gonna be some failures.”
So far, though, IU’s newcomers have largely performed when penciled into the lineup. Toetz has proven to be a potent addition to the middle of the order, and he is one of only four Hoosiers to start all 20 games. He’s second on the team with 13 RBI and he’s tied for third with nine extra-base hits.
Colopy, too, is proving that he belongs. He’s 7-for-16 over his last five games, including a 3-for-4, four-RBI performance in Saturday’s 8-0 no-hit victory over the Illini. The former Cincinnati signee (and 2019 34th round pick of the San Francisco Giants) has worked hard over the past year to fine-tune his swing. The Hoosiers could see that work begin to pay off this past fall when he socked a ball so hard it registered an exit velocity of 114.1 MPH. So far this spring, Colopy is making the most of the opportunities that have recently been presented.
“He has incredible power,” Mercer said. “He has power like very, very few people have ever seen in person. I’ve not seen the kinds of things he can do in a BP. But he’s had to focus himself on being a complete hitter. You just don’t get many pitches to hit that you can hit like that and you gotta be able to hit the ball all over the field situationally.”
Espalin, another highly-touted newcomer, has similarly had to learn the ropes of college baseball. The early verdict? He’s getting there. Gradually.
A highly-touted high school prospect and former Southern California commit, Espalin made his college debut on Saturday night. Although he struck out twice and didn’t record a hit, Espalin did manage to do something to impress his coach at the plate.
He worked a 14-pitch walk (!) after going down 0-2.
“The thing that really struck me as I go back and look at (that at-bat) is just his calmness,” Mercer said. “It wasn’t frantic, just really calm takes. Really quiet takes. He was fouling balls off, not going to take a borderline strike three call. Then he takes the Ball 4 like, yeah, that was my plan all along. It was just interesting to see because you don’t know.”
Indeed, it’s difficult for Mercer to know who to pencil into his lineup on a given day and where to play them. Sometimes his hunches work, other times they don’t. What he hopes, though, is that as the second half of the season unfolds, his lineup decisions become a lot more clear than they have been to this point.
If that happens, the freshmen might just have a say in it.
“We’re trying to get guys in,” Mercer said. “Once we get them in and find our lineup, we need to keep it as consistent as we can. But it’s hard.”