(INDIANA BASEBALL RELEASE)
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – Evansville’s athletic nickname is Aces.
But Indiana was the team that deployed those on the mound.
After Pauly Milto blanked host Evansville out Friday night, 5-0, the series shifted to Bloomington for Saturday’s double-header – but the IU starting pitching success didn’t change during a 5-1 and 9-3 sweep.
Combine the lines for Saturday starters Tanner Gordon and Andrew Saalfrank with Milto’s and here are the numbers IU coach Jeff Mercer got from his three aces in less than 24 hours:
22 2/3 innings pitched.
Just 3 earned runs and only 10 hits allowed.
“Our starting pitching has been tremendous on the weekends for several weeks,” Mercer said following Saturday’s sweep. “Really, really just sets the tone and gives us a chance.”
Evansville had virtually no chance against IU junior starter Tanner Gordon in Saturday’s opener.
Craig Shepherd managed a one-out double for UE in the first, but Gordon surrounded that with three strikeouts. And after hitting Evansville’s Sam Troyer with a pitch, Gordon proceeded to retire 12 straight hitters carrying through the fifth inning.
“There were a few things that were working today,” Gordon said of his pitch arsenal. “I’d say my curveballs were kind of on and off. But the things that were working were my changeup and my slider, for sure. Then, I was able to locate my fastball. That’s what I had going for me.”
Meantime, Indiana was forging a 3-0 lead.
IU got on the board in the first when, after a one-out single from Matt Gorski, Matt Lloyd laced a 3-2 pitch up the gap in left-center and Gorski, running on the pitch, scored easily.
The Hoosiers plated two more runs in the third. Drew Ashley legged out a leadoff infield single then got to trot home as Lloyd lambasted his 12th homer of the season – and fourth in five games.
The Aces would get Lloyd out just once in both games. His line for the day was six at-bats, five hits, four runs scored, four RBI. He also hit a solo homer Friday night at Evansville.
” ‘Remarkable’ is a perfect word for Matt,” Mercer said of Lloyd. “He’s a terrific player, a terrific worker and an incredible competitor.
“Woven into the fabric of his being is an elite competitor and he doesn’t give any pitches away. He’ll have a game that’s maybe not his best and you just know the next at-bat, he’s going to be back on, and the next day he’s going to be back on.
He is very, very good.”
As good as Gordon was, Evansville did manage to get on the board in the sixth. Ben Komonosky spoiled some good pitches to work a walk, then Troy Beilsmith at the top of the order lined a single to left. A groundout advanced the runners, then a Danny Borgstrom groundout scored Komonosky.
But IU responded with a two-run seventh, capped by Cole Barr’s 2-RBI lined double to right, and freshman Gabe Bierman supplied two innings of scoreless relief to nail down the game on the mound.
Saalfrank was dealing from the get-go, with two Ks in a 1-2-3 first, and the Hoosier offense likewise wasted little time in gaining control of Saturday’s second game.
Ashley’s leadoff double and Matt Gorski’s single, Lloyd’s RBI single, a fielder’s choice, a walk and Justin Walker’s infield RBI single added up to three runs in the IU first.
Evansville scored an unearned run in the second on a passed ball, but Saalfrank struck out four straight hitters from the second to the third inning.
The junior lefty then topped himself by fanning five straight from the seventh to the eighth, finishing the game with 14 Ks.
So Saalfrank posted his third straight start with double-digit strikeouts, reaching that standard in four of his last five games. During that five-game stretch, he has fanned 53 hitters in 29 2/3 innings pitched. His 13 Ks against Penn State were a school record in Big Ten play.
Asked about Saalfrank’s last two or three weeks, Mercer replied:
“I would have to believe he’s really at a different place mentally, emotionally. His stuff’s always been excellent. But (now) just how locked-in he is, how focused he is, how committed.”
Mercer noted how Saalfrank was keeping a pitch chart during Milto’s outing Friday, joining injured catcher Ryan Fineman and Bierman in helping IU pitching coach Justin Parker call pitches.
“At one point, I’m kind of standing there with the coaches, and those three guys are really kind of running the game,” Mercer said of Saalfrank, Fineman and Bierman. “And it was really kind of cool. It was a really cool moment for me, as a coach, when you’re players take control. When they take control of the team. And that’s where you want it.
“You don’t just get to show up when the game starts. Andrew (Saalfrank) doesn’t only have to show up when it’s his time to pitch. His commitment, keeping that chart, the commitment to paying attention to what’s going on all the time in games, allows him to go out there and compete with confidence.
“You can’t just really be good at some things and not at other things. He’s allowed himself to be good at everything, which has allowed him to be good on the mound.”
Indiana (23-12) pretty much put the game away with a four-run fifth, with clutch two-out hitting giving the Hoosiers a cushion.
Gorski reached on a fielder’s choice, took third on Lloyd’s single and scored on Scotty Bradley’s fielder’s choice. Shane Gray came on for UE in relief of starter Alex Weigand but Hoosier freshman Grant Richardson greeted him with a 2-out, 2-strike, 2-RBI lined double to right, followed by Walker’s ground single to right. Richardson then scored on an Elijah Dunham single.
Richardson’s next big blow came in the seventh.
Lloyd led off with a double, took second on Bradley’s lineout to right-center and scores on Barr’s groundout. Richardson followed by leaving the yard to right for a solo shot, his seventh homer of the season, making it 9-1.
“He was able to adjust in the middle of the game as an offensive player,” Mercer said of Richardson, a standout freshman from Fishers. “He just listens. He looked at me and said, ‘I’ll get it done.’
“He walks up, makes an adjustment, gets on fastball timing and hits a double … and the next at-bat, the guy hangs a breaking ball, and he’s able to settle back into his legs and hits a home run.”
Richardson has already earned Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors twice. Mercer was asked if he’d had any such frosh during his coaching stint at Wright State.
“I think in my five years at Wright State, we had the (conference) Player of the Year three or four times, and so I’ve seen freshmen come in and be good,” Mercer said. “I don’t know that I’ve seen freshmen do, offensively, what he’s done.
” … He’s been able to handle they day-in and day-out grind that he does, and the expectations. He’s earned the right to deal with those things, and it takes a really mature player, not just a talented player. I don’t know that I’ve had a freshman position-player (like him).”
Saalfrank finally exited in the eighth as his 14th strikeout came on a wild pitch that allowed Tanner Craig to reach first, loading the bases with two down. The Aces (17-13) then managed to push across a couple of runs before Cal Krueger induced an inning-ending flyout to right.
Braden Scott then capped the great IU pitching day with a 1-2-3 ninth, including two strikeouts.
The suberb starting pitching has given Mercer the luxury of approaching some matchups, like Sunday’s scheduled 1:05 p.m. start against Evansville, with a very fresh bullpen.
“We’ll likely start with (Tommy) Sommer to give us a short start and see how he goes,” Mercer said of the sophomore hero in relief Wednesday against Purdue. “Tommy is always a guy that can give you five or six and 40 pitches, then we’ll kind of have to work from there. I thought Braden Scott was terrific today.
” … We really are in as good of a position as we could be going into tomorrow in a four-game set.”