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Indiana baseball in Big Ten title mix, back on NCAA tournament bubble

BLOOMINGTON – By his own admission, IU baseball coach Jeff Mercer may prefer practices to games.

A man who takes pleasure in refining details and developing players, he enjoys the fast-paced nature of the work behind the scenes. The process has never been distilled so perfectly. When games begin and outside factors take away control, Mercer trades structure for stress. Most coaches are like that.

And this one still won’t even pretend to hide his excitement about the series leading up to the Big Ten-contending Hoosiers in Nebraska this weekend.

Two teams, both competing for first place in the conference – in one of the most competitive league title races in living memory. People throw power weapons, work with counting and swing for extra bases. The other plays precision baseball, middle of the Big Ten in team OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage), but first in stolen bases and team ERA.

Both are trying to position themselves for a furious late run at a regular-season championship and a spot on the right side of the NCAA tournament bubble. In one of the most fascinating months Big Ten baseball has seen in a long time, this weekend’s three-game set at Haymarket Park in Lincoln could be pivotal.

“I feel like we’re in a good place right now. I like where we are on the mound,” Mercer told IndyStar on Wednesday. “Offensively we have been excellent the last three or four weeks. I’m not overconfident at all. I just like where we are. I like the way we play.”

The road to this point hasn’t always been smooth for the Hoosiers (27-19-1, 12-6).

Indiana was picked among the conference’s top contenders in the preseason — after making it all the way to the business side of an NCAA regional in Kentucky last season — and even briefly appeared in several national top 25 rankings in February.

Then injuries struck. Luke Sinnard, last year’s standout, was lost last season to Tommy John surgery last August. Northwestern transfer Ben Grable, who is expected to be a volume innings arm this season, hasn’t thrown one. By mid-spring, AJ Shepard, Nick Mitchell, Brock Tibbits, Andrew Wiggins and Connor Foley had all been absent at least some time due to their own injuries.

Instead, Mercer and his staff turned to the younger corners of the roster during what Mercer called “an in-season player development phase.”

“Expectations and injuries are not good companions,” Mercer said. “The only way is through. You just have to get the next group of guys ready to play.”

After an 8-4 start, Indiana lost 10 of its next 18, but the bleeding was finally caused by a 16-7 home win against ranked Indiana State on April 2.

Since then, the Hoosiers have won 11 of 16 (not including one tie), including five straight Big Ten series (at Maryland, Penn State, at Minnesota, Rutgers, at Purdue). They’ve done it behind established leaders like Tyler Cerny and Devin Taylor, the latter of whom torched Rutgers in a three-game sweep in Bloomington two weeks ago.

But they have also increasingly relied on previously untested young players who have stepped into bigger roles than anyone expected they would need this spring. Like Fishers alumnus and freshman Joey Brenczewski, who at the time of writing was in the top 15 in the league in batting average and had only 21 strikeouts in 153 plate appearances.

Brenczewski originally committed to TCU before his recruitment opened up late in his high school career. Indiana jumped at the opportunity, signing him from the same program that sent current Yankees farmhand Grant Richardson to Bloomington.

Mercer and Brenczewski had honest conversations in his first year about the need to not only redshirt, but also make the most of that developmental period. To add weight and strength. To patch holes in his swing and find more barrels. By tapping into the potential that Mercer believed Brenczewski could become an all-league player later in his career.

Later it turned out that it came earlier than expected.

“Redshirting really allowed me to live in the weight room, live in the kitchen, get stronger and just watch the game,” Brenczewski told IndyStar. “Sometimes you lose sight of that a bit. To see a team run like last year, how they played with the energy and passion, it really taught me how to play this game well.

Now Indiana is rising at the right time, arriving at a more comfortable intersection of injured veterans returning to full health alongside emboldened young players propelled forward by midseason obstacles.

The Hoosiers are one of three teams who are 12-6 in the Big Ten with two weekend series left to play. Nebraska and Purdue – who lost their rivalry in West Lafayette this weekend as IU rebounded 4-1 in the 9th finale inning of game three – joins second-place Indiana, one game behind first-place Illinois. Favorite Iowa is 1.5 games out, at 13-8 in league play.

Over the next two weekends, IU will take on Nebraska on the road and then against sixth-seeded Michigan at home. Illinois hosts Iowa this weekend and then closes the season at Purdue, which is at Michigan this weekend.

Not only are the league contenders clustered so closely together, they will virtually all have a say in where the Big Ten regular-season title ends up later this month.

“I’ve never seen it so tight at the top,” Mercer said, “and then it’s even wilder to have those teams playing against each other.”

For Indiana, this weekend also means a double opportunity. A series win would keep the Hoosiers in the thick of the league race, but it would also give them valuable wins against the only Big Ten team with a top-25 RPI number nationally. Coming back from the NCAA tournament bubble following the midseason slump, Mercer’s squad could do itself more than one favor with a good weekend in Nebraska’s capital.

“You have a chance to play in the NCAA tournament,” Mercer said, “and you have a chance to play yourself in the top two of the league this past weekend.”

Now the Hoosiers have to grab it.

Follow IndyStar reporter Zach Osterman on Twitter: @ZachOsterman.