The Journal Gazette
Tuesday, April 23, 2019 1:00 am

Local products key to IU leading Big Ten

Cameron Drummond | For The Journal Gazette

BLOOMINGTON – If nothing else, Indiana baseball coach Jeff Mercer is aware of himself when speaking with the media.

He admits to using similar phrases to describe his club (27-13, 9-3 Big Ten), which is atop of the conference standings after a weekend series win at Michigan State.

On a microlevel, Mercer knows he also uses repetitive lingo to describe the play of two of the players most responsible for Indiana's success – freshman outfielder Grant Richardson and junior left-handed pitcher Andrew Saalfrank.

Richardson's arrival followed a distinguished high school career. It featured stops at Bishop Dwenger for three seasons, where he owns the record for career triples and played basketball, before spending his senior year winning a state title at Fishers High School.

Regardless, Richardson wasn't part of Mercer's plans to start this season. Richardson didn't record an at-bat in the first 14 games of the season while he got up-to-speed defensively.

“He took every fly ball and every rep like it was the seventh game of the World Series,” Mercer said. “He's an elite defender because he worked his butt off to be a great defender.”

The .966 fielding percentage owned by Richardson, who has committed only two errors this season, has come alongside the offensive production expected of him.

“What I like the most about Grant is you'll see him make a mistake, like all freshmen do, like all seniors do,” Mercer said. “We'll come in. We'll talk about it in the moment, and he goes and applies it and he fixes it.”

He has six games with multiple RBI, including a three home run performance March 30 against Maryland. While Richardson lost a seven-game hitting streak in the first game of Sunday's doubleheader at Michigan State, he is still hitting .327 across his 26 games, all starts.

Injuries suffered by fellow outfielders Elijah Dunham and Logan Kaletha forced Mercer's hand to play Richardson, but the freshman said he was preparing just the same all season.

“When they went out, I worked the same,” Richardson said. “I'm just blessed to start and get into the lineup.”

Meanwhile, tinkering has been a hallmark of Saalfrank's IU career, which began after he was twice an all-state selection at Heritage.

This was most evident ahead of his junior season, as he worked with pitching coach Justin Parker to implement a changeup as his third pitch alongside a fastball and deceptive curveball.

An oblique injury before the season threw off Saalfrank's mechanics, leading to early-season struggles. But Indiana has won each of his last six outings, including a seven-inning, 11-strikeout start in the deciding game of the Michigan State series.

He's worked the changeup into his rotation more as the season has progressed, but his bread and butter remains mastering control of the fastball and curveball.

“If teams could just say 'He can't throw a strike with the fastball,' then they can just lay off basically everything,” Saalfrank said. “Fastball command makes the curveball better, just because they have to respect both pitches.”

Keeping things simple has worked for Saalfrank, who already has easily eclipsed his career-best with 68 strikeouts this season.

The same can also be said for the Hoosiers, who have won their first four conference series in a season for the first time since 2014, the last time an NCAA Regional took place in Bloomington. 

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