Hovering around the eighth spot in the conference while attempting to earn an at-large bid into the NCAA tournament, Indiana players and coaches have often referred to themselves as a wildcard team over the last few days.
It’s been difficult, and that was especially the case against Long Beach State this past weekend.
Nonetheless, the Hoosiers came from behind to defeat the Dirtbags 8-5 and win the series Sunday at Bart Kaufman field.
”None of them have been easy,” IU head coach Chris Lemonis said. “They've been some tough wins, but some really gritty wins by our kids. I really like the effort that we gave today.”
Junior left-hander Caleb Baragar got the start on the mound for Indiana and likely experienced déjà vu.
Similar to the second game of the series, Indiana fell into an early 2-0 deficit in the first inning off a two-run home run by Long Beach State freshman designated hitter Brock Lundquist. Freshman centerfielder Tristan Mercadel extended the lead to three with an RBI single in the top of the third inning.
Long Beach State sophomore catcher Eric Hutting, who entered the game with the lowest batting average on the team at .189, hit two solo home runs – one in the top of the fifth and one in the top of the seventh – to negate a two-run bottom of the fifth by Indiana. He had three in home runs overall in the series.
One of those home runs came off Baragar, who after four earned runs, two walks, and four hits allowed in 4.1 innings was replaced by freshman left-hander Austin Foote in the fifth inning. Foote faced two batters and gave up a hit before being replaced by sophomore right-hander Thomas Belcher that same inning. Belcher (3-0) went on the mound with two outs remaining in the top of the fifth and would allow just one hit, tossing one strikeout.
Lemonis said the starting pitching can be better through confidence and a couple adjustments.
”Our bullpen has to be as good as anybody's bullpen,” he said. “It'd be nice to get at least another inning or two and a couple less runs out of our starters.”
Starting pitching woes were alleviated by senior second baseman Casey Rodrigue and right-handed pitcher Ryan Halstead.
Facing a 5-4 deficit in the bottom of the seventh, Rodrigue hit an RBI double and scored an unearned run to give Indiana its first lead of the game. Out of the four runs scored by the Hoosiers that inning, three came with two outs remaining. One of those three was Rodrigue’s unearned run.
He said having timely hitting now was very important.
"Like I said, you're fighting for your lives and every at-bat is magnified because you need that much more intensity to outduel the pitcher,” Rodrigue said. “We just have to come out on top, and our hitting has shown up the last three days. We have to keep that rolling."
Halstead, who replaced Belcher at the start of the top of the eighth inning, earned his ninth save of the season tossing three strikeouts in the final two innings.
”We're just at a point right now where we go out there and play because we can't control anything,” Halstead said. “I think it's a good thing for everyone just to trust each other, and be in every at-bat, be in every pitch and just trust the product on the field."
Indiana is embracing its role as a wildcard team, having now won five of its last six games after losing four straight.
"When a team's back is against the wall, it's got to show its true colors,” he said. “Maybe we like the pressure, maybe we respond better to pressure situations. And that's great, because in the playoffs it's magnified 100 times.
“I’m looking forward to keep rolling this momentum that we have."