Two days after getting swept at Ohio State, Indiana had its best practice of the year on Tuesday afternoon at Bart Kaufman Field.
Yeah, yeah. Jeff Mercer knows what you’re thinking.
“That’s super cliche and every coach says that after they get their butt kicked,” the IU coach said. “I know how it sounds, but it really was. It was kind of a reckoning.”
And the Hoosiers are indeed in need of a reckoning.
Losses in five consecutive games have Indiana reeling as it approaches the midpoint of the season, and IU needs a reset if it is to secure one of the few NCAA Tournament bids expected to be available for Big Ten teams during this unconventional season. Over the past couple weeks, Indiana has been as sloppy as it has been at any point during the 93-game-old Mercer era. There have been mistakes in the field, missed pitches from the mound, and whiff after whiff at the plate — a confluence of bad baseball plays that has flushed IU from the top of the Big Ten down to fourth place.
But there are still two months for IU to dictate its fate. Right now, Mercer hopes last weekend in Columbus serves as an alarm to his players: They can reroute the trajectory of their season — but they better start with this weekend’s home series against Illinois.
“I told the guys, ‘As far as baseball goes, the worst possible thing just happened,’” Mercer said. “‘We went 0-and-4 on a weekend — the worst possible thing. And the sun came up today and we still have 26 games left and the season is still happening. They didn’t give away a championship yesterday and they didn’t throw it away yesterday. They didn’t cancel the season for us or anyone else. The worst possible thing happened and we’re all still here and we’re all fine and we’re all healthy.’ From there, I think you could see (them think), ‘Yeah, you’re right. What do I fear so much if the worst possible thing happened?’”
For Mercer, that’s why Tuesday’s practice was so important. It was a chance for his players to get back on the field, put the weekend behind them and work on the things that have recently ailed them. (The list of ailments is, frankly, a long one.)
And it wasn’t any ol’ practice, either. Mercer shook things up and turned it into a coach-pitch scrimmage to simulate a midweek tuneup — the kind of game Big Ten teams are missing this spring. Two of his assistants took the mound for the seven-inning exhibition, during which Mercer saw a team eager to find a fix.
“That’s what failure does,” Mercer said. “I don’t want to lose. I hate losing. Obviously, everybody does. But it exposes flaws — and they were on full exposure. Ohio State did a good job, but Indiana was an active participant in kicking Indiana’s butt. We were right there in the driver’s seat kicking our own butt, too. Those things have to be addressed, and they were.”
Those are things such as situational hitting, swing mechanics and fielding fundamentals. Every facet of IU’s approach at Ohio State was poor, reflected most visibly in the team’s 46 strikeouts, its three hits in 30 at-bats with runners in scoring position, and its eight errors. No, there wasn’t much to feel good about in Columbus.
But the Hoosiers are now almost a full week removed from that stinker of a series. The focus is on Illinois, and making up ground in the weeks to come. Big Ten teams seldom have much room for error in the NCAA Tournament selection process, and it’s unclear exactly how the committee will treat leagues like the one IU calls home. Mercer says he still hasn’t gotten a great answer on how the Big Ten will be judged, given that the RPI is, as he calls it, a “non-existent measuring stick” for the league during this conference-only season.
All IU can do is try to reset its season and try climb back up the standings to a more opportune position.
It starts this weekend against the 10th-place team in the league.
“You’re gonna have to finish in the top three — maybe four — and then do the best that you can to present yourself as a team that’s talented enough and capable and deserving of being in the NCAA Tournament,” Mercer said. “... It’s going to be a dog fight. All I know is that every day, we got to show up to coach this team and try to finish in the top couple and not leave anything up for debate.”