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IU starters heating up at right time

Sommer, Brown and Bierman each turned in some of their best work of the season during last weekend’s pod

Syndication: Indianapolis
IU’s Tommy Sommer talks with teammates during a game at Victory Field in Indianapolis in 2019.
David Woods/IndyStar

While watching McCade Brown work his way through the first few batters in Saturday morning’s game at Rutgers, Indiana head coach Jeff Mercer turned and looked at his pitching coach to share his early assessment.

“This guy looks different,” Mercer said to Justin Parker. “You guys did a great job.”

Parker and Brown spent a chunk of last week fine-tuning the right-hander’s approach after he yielded five runs and walked five batters during an abbreviated 2.2-inning outing the previous Saturday against Iowa. A deep look at the metrics revealed to Parker that Brown’s release point had gotten inconsistent, resulting in reduced spin rates and poor command against the Hawkeyes. So the two went to work on some mechanical adjustments geared toward tweaking Brown’s delivery, helping him work from a more upright position on the mound.

As Brown blew away two of the first three Rutgers hitters he faced on swinging strikeouts, the results were clear to Mercer.

“Your work week was really good and productive,” the IU coach said to Parker.

Indeed, Brown went on to flirt with perfection last weekend, retiring each of the first 18 batters he faced while notching 11 strikeouts. Consider it one more special start for Brown in a season full of them.

The best news for Indiana is that Brown isn’t the only starter who appears to be locked in for the season’s final stretch. Friday starter Tommy Sommer and Sunday ace Gabe Bierman also turned in great starts last weekend, giving the Hoosiers a rotation to be excited about as they push for a second consecutive Big Ten title in the coming weeks.

“Those three guys were absolutely dominant and incredible,” Mercer said.

And they’re a big reason why first-place IU enters this weekend’s must-watch series at Michigan with the No. 3 staff ERA (2.83) in the country. Sommer has held opposing lineups to three earned runs or fewer in all but one of his 10 starts this season, Brown already has a combined no-hitter to his name this season, and no qualifying pitcher in the league has an earned run average lower than Bierman’s 2.26 thus far.

As a staff, Indiana also paces the Big Ten in fewest hits allowed (202 in 286 innings) and total strikeouts (360). Bierman, in particular, has helped IU pad its stats in several categories, while limiting baserunners and doing his part to position Indiana for favorable results at the end of each weekend. Across his last 28.2 innings spanning four outings, Bierman has held the opposition to five earned runs on 16 hits with 37 strikeouts and just five walks.

He is, quite simply, giving the Hoosiers Friday-quality outings at the end of each weekend.

“Watching Gabe pitch on Sunday was like watching a professional,” Mercer said. “He’s got five pitches with the two-seam and the four-seam fastball, and you’re watching him throw five pitches for strikes in any count, whenever and wherever. You just don’t see that very often in college baseball, so it gives you great confidence. You feel really good about where you’re at. I’m really proud of the guys for keeping themselves physically in the position to be able to go out and do that.”

And with Sommer — who held a hot Rutgers club to just one earned run over 6.2 innings last Friday — Brown and Bierman all coming off some of their best games of the season, Mercer believes his starters are hitting their stride at the optimal time.

“Now, it’s full-go,” Mercer said. “Those guys are prepared for it. They’ve been very carefully managed, one for their own health, but also to make sure they’re at their strongest in the last month of the season. We talk about it all the time. You gotta be at your best in the last month.”

Right now, they sure seem to be.