Twelve weeks down, one to go.
The end of the regular season is here for Indiana, which closes the spring docket with a three-game trip to Maryland beginning Friday night. For the Hoosiers, who ended a five-game losing streak with a win over Ohio State on Monday, it’s a crucial weekend for their NCAA Tournament hopes. IU heads to College Park on the good side of the bubble, but things can change in a snap. The Terps have been playing great baseball, the Hoosiers have not, and these next three games could very well determine whether IU’s season ends in The Land of Pleasant Living or extends to a postseason site to be determined.
Here’s what you ought to know before first pitch:
The last two weeks were enough to torpedo Indiana’s pursuit of a second straight Big Ten regular season title, but not enough to knock the Hoosiers out of the NCAA Tournament field. We think.
As of Thursday evening, both Baseball America and D1Baseball.com still project IU as a three seed in next month’s 64-team field. The Hoosiers’ spot, however, doesn’t feel so secure. D1Baseball, for example, has Indiana pegged as one of the last five at-larges on the ladder.
With a road series win over a good Terps team, IU should be able to wrap up a bid. Anything less than that, however, and it’ll likely be lights out for the Hoosiers.
Although the last two weeks have been frustrating, IU coach Jeff Mercer says he’s appreciated his team’s focus and willingness to work through late-season issues during this unprecedented campaign.
“What I’d like them to do is just know I’m really proud of them,” Mercer said this week. “They’ve worked really hard. They’ve earned the opportunity to go out and enjoy playing the game together this weekend, and if we get to play more than that, great. If we don’t, there wasn’t anything they left undone. It wasn’t like they didn’t work hard enough or try hard enough. Sometimes baseball is a silly game and sometimes we get in our own way a little bit. But man oh man, they’ve given everything they’ve got.
“I just want them to enjoy the opportunity to play and be together and trust themselves and trust the work that they’ve put in. They’re going to play against a really good team, but so are we. We’ve proven that. I think it’s going to be a very competitive weekend.”
Starting staff shakeup
The fingernail issue that forced Tommy Sommer to depart early in each of his past two Friday assignments will prevent the left-hander from making a start this weekend. In Sommer’s place, John Modugno will get the nod in the series opener.
That means it’ll be a staff effort for the Hoosiers, who are going back to what worked in Monday’s win over Ohio State. In that game, Modugno, Ty Bothwell and Grant Macciocchi combined on a two-hit shutout of the Buckeyes, throwing 76 of their 106 total pitches for strikes and walking no one.
McCade Brown (Saturday) and Gabe Bierman (Sunday) will work in their normal spots. And while Sommer is subbing out of the Friday role, Mercer didn’t rule him out as a short relief option at some point during the weekend.
New look top of the lineup
In each of IU’s first 37 games of the season, Mercer penciled Drew Ashley into the leadoff spot. But over the last four, that role has belonged to Jeremy Houston. Here’s why:
Houston had been doing an excellent job of getting on base from the bottom of the order, posting an on-base percentage of .542 during an eight-game span from May 2-16. So Mercer moved him to the top spot and bumped Ashley to the second slot in an effort shake things up and make everyone a little better.
“It gives Drew the ability to be more multifaceted,” Mercer said. “He can do different things. The intention is to allow Drew to hit-and-run and bunt for a hit and do something that allows him to utilize more of his bat-to-ball skills in different ways than just going up there and trying to get a walk or get a hit, especially to lead off a game.
“... With the rest of the lineup, it helps put guys in more natural positions based on if we’re facing a lefty or righty. Some of those guys can move around a little bit, but it gets Paul (Toetz) further down the lineup so we can try to bring him up with guys on base. It allows the young guys, Morgan (Colopy) and Kip (Fougerousse) and those guys, to go down one or two spots, (too).”
Terps on a tear
Maryland has won 16 of its past 19 games entering play, including a series victory at Michigan last weekend. The Terps have gotten some help from their freshman class, with first-year utility man Matthew Shaw leading the team in average (.346), hits (54) and doubles (12). On Tuesday, the Big Ten named Shaw as its Freshman of the Week.
Right-hander Sean Burke, who will start Saturday’s game, is considered the No. 44 MLB Draft prospect nationally by Baseball America. Burke allowed three runs on four hits with eight strikeouts over 6.2 innings in Saturday’s win at Michigan.
Maryland has also been very good at home, winning 14 of the 17 games it has played in College Park this spring and sweeping each of its past three weekend sets (Ohio State, Minnesota and Purdue).