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Hoosiers ready for weekend full of southpaws

Notes ahead of another big weekend for Indiana baseball

Auston Matricardi

Indiana is headed east for pod play in New Jersey, where the Hoosiers will play two games each against Rutgers and Nebraska this weekend. Here’s what you ought to know ahead of the four-game trip:

The last time Indiana saw Rutgers’ Harry Rutkowski was Opening Day in Minneapolis when the junior left-hander sat down Hoosier after Hoosier in six innings of one-run ball. It was a suboptimal start to the season for IU hitters, who struck out eight times and managed only four hits against the Scarlet Knights’ southpaw.

It was also a peek at what was to come.

Lefties have stymied IU at times this season, causing trouble for Hoosier hitters as the season has unfolded. As Indiana gears up for another important weekend of play against Rutgers and Nebraska, there is good news and bad news.

First, the bad news: IU is scheduled to face left-handers in each of the first three games of the pod, including a rematch with Rutkowski on Friday afternoon. The good news? Indiana has fared much better against southpaws across the past two weekends.

“For us, going into this weekend, it gives us a lot of confidence knowing that we just were able to be really competitive against a couple of really good lefties this past weekend,” IU head coach Jeff Mercer said.

Indeed, the Hoosiers combined for 18 hits in 49 at-bats (.367) against Iowa left-handers last weekend. Zooming out, it was a continuation of the success IU had against Minnesota’s lefties the weekend prior when it totaled 20 hits in 57 at-bats (.350) versus Gopher southpaws.

But those hits didn’t come so easy earlier in the season. During a 20-game span from March 13 through April 18, IU hit just .230 against lefties (39-for-169).

Mercer chalks up the change in fortune to exposure. With resident left-handed starter Tommy Sommer on the shelf during fall ball, IU didn’t see much left-handed pitching during its offseason intrasquad scrimmages. The Hoosiers have five lefties on their roster, but the bulk of those pitchers are bullpen arms. So getting a chance to see more left-handers as the spring has unfolded has allowed IU to get in better synch inside the batter’s box, Mercer believes.

“I feel like we’re more prepared (from) having seen guys,” Mercer said. “We have a couple different guys in the lineup than we had before who handled that a little bit better, so I do feel better about it.”

As for this weekend, IU will send Sommer to the mound against Rutkowski in the Friday afternoon opener, then face Rutgers’ Ben Wereski on Saturday morning. Wereski leads the conference in WHIP (0.98), walks per nine (1.38) and wins (five), while ranking second with a 5:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

Rutkowski, meanwhile, has been just as tough and durable as the Hoosiers remember. He’s 34 strikeouts shy of setting a new school record for career punch outs and he’s logged six starts of at least six innings so far this season.

“He’s very good and done a good job,” Mercer said. “It’ll certainly be a competitive game for us.”

Nebraska will throw lefty Cade Povich in the Saturday afternoon contest. Povich enters the weekend with the fourth-best ERA (3.16) in the league.

Wait and see

Indiana knows it will throw Sommer, McCade Brown and Gabe Bierman, as usual, this weekend, but Mercer was still tinkering with the Saturday assignments when he met with reporters earlier this week.

Sommer is set for the Friday start and Bierman is slotted for the Sunday finale, but the middle games could see some mixing and matching. According to IU’s game notes, Brown is penciled in for the Saturday morning game against Rutgers, while the Hoosiers have not yet settled on a starter for the Saturday afternoon tilt against Nebraska.

“I think we’ll probably stay with McCade in Game 2, but that’s kind of up for debate a little bit,” Mercer said Wednesday. “McCade will throw Saturday, whether it’s in Game 2 or Game 3 — what we’re gonna do in Game 3 is a little bit up for debate as far as what we feel is a better matchup between McCade, John Modugno and Ty Bothwell.”

Rutgers is hot

When the Big Ten schedule came out, the Scarlet Knights knew late April and early May would include a tough run of games. The league gave the Scarlet Knights 14 straight contests against Iowa, Michigan, Indiana and Nebraska — each of them in the top four of the conference standings.

And yet, the stretch hasn’t been as much of a doozy as expected. In fact, Rutgers has turned some heads.

The Scarlet Knights enter the weekend on a five-game winning streak after sweeping (!) Nebraska in Lincoln last weekend. For Rutgers, it was its first conference road sweep since joining the Big Ten.

Rutgers enters the weekend in sixth place in the conference standings, while looking to continue its climb into the league’s top half. IU and Nebraska, meanwhile, are jockeying for first. The Hoosiers head into the pod leading the conference, while the Cornhuskers are a half-game back in second.

In addition to this weekend’s games, IU and Nebraska will also meet for two more matchups during pod play in Bloomington May 21-22.

Looking to June

In its latest NCAA Tournament projections published Thursday, Baseball America has the Hoosiers as a No. 2 seed in the Louisville Regional. Indiana State (No. 3) and Wright State (No. 4), Mercer’s former program, are also included in the field.