Indiana is back at Bart Kaufman Field on Friday for a three-game set with Minnesota. Here’s what you need to know heading into the weekend.
Bierman finding his groove
In early March, Gabe Bierman didn’t look like Gabe Bierman.
There were a couple of reasons for that.
Tendinitis forced the sophomore right-hander to miss the entirety of IU’s fall ball period in late 2020. It wasn’t anything too serious, but the inflammation in his arm was enough to cause Bierman to fall behind his peers on the throwing schedule and make the early part of the spring more about catch-up, than preparation.
Then, when Bierman took the mound for his first few starts, Indiana coach Jeff Mercer saw a pitcher who was trying to do too much, striving to throw the perfect pitch with each release. But for a sinkerballer like Bierman, the goal is not necessarily to miss bats but pitch to them, coaxing opposing hitters to pound the ball into the turf. Over the first couple weeks of the season, that was a reminder Bierman needed to hear.
That lesson has taken hold over the past month, as Bierman has begun to return to form. The Jeffersonville native is coming off his best start of the year last Sunday at Northwestern and he once again looks like a pitcher who knows what he is and what he needs to do each time he touches the rubber.
“(We had) some conversations behind the scenes like, ‘You have a really, really effective pitch,’” Mercer said of Bierman’s heavy sinker. “‘You’re not McCade (Brown), you’re not Tommy (Sommer), you’re not Matt Litwicki. You’re Gabe Bierman. Be the player you are because it’s a terrific player.’”
Bierman has been exactly that of late. He helped IU clinch a series win at Northwestern last weekend after holding the Wildcats scoreless over 7.2 innings of two-hit ball. He struck out six, walked only one, and recorded 13 outs on ground balls. It was the continuation of an encouraging trend for Bierman, who has emerged as a shutdown Sunday starter for the Hoosiers in recent weeks. Across his last 15.2 innings, Bierman has yielded merely one unearned run on six hits with 12 strikeouts and three walks.
That’s much better than the way Bierman began the season, when he struggled with his command and gave in to the urge to nibble around contact. Lately, though, Bierman has been better about trusting the sink on his fastball. Doing so has helped him to use his offspeed stuff more effectively.
“No one swings at a changeup when the fastball isn’t established for a strike because the changeup doesn’t play up when the fastball is not a pressure pitch,” Mercer said. “... As he’s forced contact, that’s allowed everything else to play up and he actually gets the swings and misses off of that. He’s done a really good job and we’ve been really proud of him.”
Hoosiers need three
Minnesota is traditionally one of the top programs in the Big Ten.
Except for this year.
The Gophers have not achieved anything close to the level of success that John Anderson’s program has become accustomed to seeing in Minneapolis. They’re merely 4-20 thus far, while carrying the Big Ten’s worst pitching staff and its second-worst lineup. So yeah, the Gophers have played out of character for a team that is usually, at worst, competitive during the conference season.
For the Hoosiers, it all means that a sweep is a virtual necessity this weekend. Although the past two weeks have been encouraging, IU is still trying to atone for its disastrous trip to Ohio State three weeks ago. So taking care of Minnesota is hugely important as the third-place Hoosiers try to climb back toward the top of the Big Ten standings.
The good news is that IU has already taken both of the first two games between the clubs this season, combining for 23 hits across a pair of wins at U.S. Bank Stadium in early March.
Around the horn
Indiana ranks third in the nation in hits allowed per nine innings (5.83) and fifth in the country in both ERA (2.77) and WHIP (1.12). The Hoosiers lead the Big Ten in all three categories. ... Saturday starter McCade Brown leads the league in hits allowed per nine innings (4.58) and ranks second in the league in ERA (2.41), strikeouts (63) and strikeouts per nine innings (15.19). ... Gabe Bierman leads the Big Ten in ERA (2.34) and ranks third in hits allowed per nine innings (4.93). ... Cole Barr and Paul Toetz each reached base five times across the first two games against Minnesota this season.