BLOOMINGTON — One by one, Indiana baseball players touched the Big Ten championship trophy shortly after beating Rutgers 13-3 on Saturday afternoon.
The Hoosiers clinched the conference title with their lopsided win over the Scarlet Knights at Bart Kaufman Field. The win vaulted IU (36-19, 17-7) a half-game ahead of Michigan for the top spot in the final conference standings.
IU players dogpiled freshman reliever Gabe Bierman after he struck out Rutgers second baseman David Soto to end the game. They then tipped their caps to the crowd of 2,673. First-year IU coach Jeff Mercer was doused with a water bucket shower as his interview on the Big Ten Network ended, making the celebration complete.
“That was the best shower I’ve had in a long time,” Mercer said.
For Mercer, a 33-year-old coach from Wright State who replaced the departed Chris Lemonis, it has been a season of getting the team to buy into his vision of excelling in all facets of the game. With the sweep of Rutgers over the weekend, IU has now won nine of its last 10 three-game series.
“They could have said ‘Who is this 33-year-old hillbilly kid coming in here?’” Mercer said. “They didn’t have to listen. They could have fought you, and they just kept trying to understand and get better.”
There were some tense moments early as Rutgers jumped to an early 1-0 lead and held it for three innings. But after Matt Lloyd got IU’s first hit on an infield single in the fourth inning, the floodgates opened. The Hoosiers batted around in the fourth, sending 10 players to plate while scoring six runs on five hits to take a 6-1 lead.
An IU team that has socked a school-record 90 homers played station-to-station, scoring the six runs on an RBI double from third baseman Cole Barr, an RBI single from catcher Ryan Fineman and a pair of two-RBI singles from shortstop Justin Walker and second baseman Drew Ashley.
“We’re becoming way more multi-faceted, and we can win games without hitting home runs,” Lloyd said. “It’s awesome to have the home run card in the back pocket, too, obviously.”
After a two-run homer by Rutgers shortstop Kevin Welsh cut IU’s lead to 6-3, Barr answered with a two-run homer in the bottom of the fifth to put the Hoosiers up 8-3. From there, IU kept tacking on runs in the late innings, finishing the game with 11 hits and seven walks
“If you can go 10, 11, 12 guys deep that all follow the same plan, it’s just suffocating,” Mercer said.
Junior lefty Andrew Saalfrank (8-1) allowed three runs on six hits in six innings to earn the win for IU. Bierman, a Jeffersonville native, pitched the final three innings of scoreless relief.
For Fineman, who was one of six seniors honored on Senior Day, it was a perfect way to finish off his final game on campus.
“It’s everything you can hope for,” Fineman said. “It’s nice you can come out there and play your best game in your final game. It’s surreal. As a kid, you always talk about your are going to win a championship. You are going to dogpile. There’s a lot more season to go, but that was awesome.”
IU to face UConn in Jimmy V Classic
The Indiana men’s basketball team will face UConn in the 25th anniversary of the Jimmy V Classic on Dec. 10 at Madison Square Garden in New York City, ESPN announced this week.
Louisville will face national runner up Texas Tech in the second game of the doubleheader. Start times for the two games have yet to be determined.
Both IU and UConn will be making their fourth appearance in the event, named after late North Carolina State coach Jim Valvano. Proceeds from the event will benefit the V Foundation for Cancer Research, which has raised millions of dollars to fight the disease.