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Pivotal stretch for IU baseball begins this weekend

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Notes on the stretch run as the Hoosiers prepare to host Iowa

Auston Matricardi

A big weekend of baseball awaits Indiana at Bart Kaufman Field, where the Hoosiers will host Iowa for a three-game set. Here’s what you need to know before the first pitch:

The degree of difficulty is about to increase

There’s still a month left in the Big Ten baseball regular season, plenty of time for movement one way or another in the league standings. But for an Indiana team pushing for a shot at the conference crown, now is the time for the second-place Hoosiers to hit their stride.

Their stretch run begins this weekend.

That’s because each of IU’s 17 remaining games will be against teams positioned in the top half of the Big Ten. Fourth-place Iowa heads to Bloomington on Friday only a game and a half behind Indiana in the conference ledger, so in head coach Jeff Mercer’s mind, the upcoming three-game set represents the start of a crucial proving ground as his Hoosiers look to defend their 2019 Big Ten title.

“We’ve had to work to be in the position to control our own destiny, knowing this part of the schedule was going to come up,” Mercer said.

Ever since a four-game sweep at Ohio State deflated the Hoosiers during the first weekend of April, IU has seemingly found its footing. The Hoosiers have won four in a row and seven of eight after throttling last-place Minnesota last weekend in Bloomington.

Now, though, Indiana realizes each of the next five weekends will present tests against some of the conference’s best. And make no mistake, these are tests the Hoosiers will have to ace. D1Baseball.com on Thursday included IU among its last five teams in the 2021 NCAA Tournament field.

“Moving into this stretch, I do feel good,” Mercer said. “I feel like the boys are prepared to go and compete at a really high level. We’re gonna have to. But I do feel positive. We are in the (home) stretch. It’s time to go. It’s time to go play well. It’s time to compete and it’s time to put it all together and go find out what we’re made of.”

Hopkins entrenched at catcher

As April has unfolded, Mercer seems to have gotten closer to settling on a lineup he likes. That’s been a difficult task this season, with no midweek games to test out new combinations and different options. But the past few weeks, at least, have allowed the IU coach to find a few alignments that look good to him.

It starts at catcher, where Collin Hopkins has started each of IU’s past 10 games behind the dish. Hopkins is giving Indiana a trusted defensive presence as the season’s second half unfolds. He’s not only a good fundamental backstop, he’s worked well with IU’s pitching staff and flashed a strong throwing arm when needed.

And while it’s his defense that jumps out, Hopkins has delivered recently with his bat. In the final two games of last weekend’s series, Hopkins combined to go 6-for-8 with five doubles.

“Without us having midweek games, we felt like Collin can handle the workload without pushing him,” Mercer said. “There are not very many positives to the Big Ten’s decision to not play midweek (games), but the one positive is we don’t have the workload on the catcher that we would normally have, so you’re able to give him a little bit of a breather during the week and go out on the weekends and be able to play all three games. So we’ll continue with that unless there’s a situation that we can’t.”

One of those situations to which Mercer alludes is likely to present itself next weekend when the Hoosiers play a four-game pod at Rutgers against the Scarlet Knights and Nebraska. Next Saturday’s action in Piscataway will feature a doubleheader, so Jacob Southern will also likely see his name on the lineup card.

“Jacob is ready to go if he’s needed and if he’s called upon,” Mercer said.

Weekend starters

It’ll be the usual three starters this weekend for IU, as left-hander Tommy Sommer (5-1, 3.42 ERA) will throw Friday, right-hander McCade Brown (4-2, 2.41 ERA) will go Saturday, and righty Gabe Bierman (3-2, 2.21 ERA) will work Sunday’s finale.

Brown will be making his first start since April 17 when he takes the mound on Saturday afternoon. Mercer said he held the sophomore out of last week’s series because he didn’t want to start Brown in Friday’s doubleheader on short rest.

Cookin’ at home

When Mercer had to miss two series earlier this season due to COVID-19 protocols, Scott Joraanstad, the program’s sport administrator, gave the IU coach some reassurance. Although Mercer was due to miss seven games while in quarantine, each of those contests were at home.

And you know what generally happens when the Hoosiers are at home. They win.

“He said, ‘Don’t worry. There’s something magic about The Bart,’” Mercer said. “I kind of laughed and then I thought, ‘You know, it’s funny you say that. There are some things I’ve seen at Bart Kaufman Field that I’ve never seen before.’”

Indeed, IU continues to roll when it takes the field in Bloomington. So far this season, the Hoosiers are 11-1 at Bart Kaufman Field while taking care of the league’s bottom half. In the nine seasons that the facility has been open, IU has won over 75% of its games at the Bypass.

“There are just some things — some comebacks, some wins, some performances that were just masterful — that have happened here that I’ve not seen at other places,” Mercer said. “Maybe there is something magic about it. I’d certainly like to think so.”