Confidence is critical for any team wanting to achieve success in the postseason. And Indiana appears to have plenty of it, playing its best baseball at just the right time.
Indiana defeated Ohio State 9-1 and 6-4 in game one and game two respectively of Friday’s doubleheader at Bart Kaufman Field. The Hoosiers swept the Buckeyes to close out the regular season.
This was a critical series for Indiana (32-20, 12-10 Big Ten), which has won nine of its last 10 games heading into next week’s Big Ten Tournament in Minneapolis. And while conference tournament is certainly on their minds, the Hoosiers’ play of late also makes a strong case for them to be an NCAA Tournament team.
"We're thinking about the Big Ten Tournament, but yeah, I do,” IU head coach Chris Lemonis said when asked if he felt his team has made a strong case. “When the NCAA at the beginning of the year says these are the things you have to do - go on the road, play good people, beat good people, finish strong - I think we've done a lot of those type of things. We had some bumps in the roads early, or kind of in the middle of the year, but our team survived and I think we're better because of it right now."
I think most would agree with Lemonis. Aside from the impressive winning streak, Indiana also boasts a top 50 ranking in D1baseball.com’s latest RIP projections. In those same rankings, Ohio State (35-18, 13-11 Big Ten) was No. 27 entering Friday's doubleheader.
The Hoosiers wouldn’t be in this position without clutch hitting from their players. Over the last week and a half, this team has made a name for itself regaining or building on a lead with two-out hits. It was critical when the Hoosiers earned a sweep on the road at No. 20 Maryland the weekend of May 1-3.
”We’ve had a couple games like that recently and we haven’t been too worried,” freshman leftfielder Logan Sowers said. “Just get back in the dugout, not try to do to much, chip away. That’s what we did tonight and it’s worked for us.”
But while the hitting has been at postseason level, Indiana’s defense and pitching must improve if it wants to make a deep run in the conference tournament and add to its NCAA Tournament resume.
Ohio State stranded a combined 30 runners. Some might argue that’s a testament to strong pitching and timely defense by the Hoosiers; however, I’d say it’s more of the Buckeyes missing many opportunities to score runs.
Lemonis sees both the positive and negative side of that.
"Like I said last week, it's kind of good and bad,” he said. “It means you're getting a lot of guys on, but we're pitching in pressure situations which is good and we showed that again tonight."
Junior left-handed pitcher Kyle Hart, who has slowly been increasing his pitch count as a result of recovering from offseason Tommy John Surgery, allowed six hits but gave up just one unearned run. He had five strikeouts and 85 pitches overall in six innings in the first game of the doubleheader.
In the second game, junior right-hander Christian Morris threw six strikeouts but also gave up six walks, five hits and one earned run in 4 2/3 innings. His total pitch count was three more than Hart’s, but he pitched 1 1/3 fewer innings.
Indiana can’t have that kind of inconsistency on the mound, or it will find itself exiting the Big Ten Tournament early.
So is Indiana an NCAA Tournament team? I think so. It has the timely hitting that could make for a successful run, but it will only go as far as their improvement defensively and on the mound.
At the very least, the momentum gained puts them in a great position for its postseason hopes going forward.
"I kind of compare it to NCAA basketball,” Hart said. “If you just look at who's hot going into that tournament, a lot of people win that tournament just coming off a really good closing to the regular season. That’s where we're at. Hitting the ball is really the most impressive thing right now... If we can just match the defense and the pitching, yeah, we’re going to be in really good shape.”