It has been a transitional season for Indiana left-hander Andrew Saalfrank, and he's excited about where he ended up.
The former Heritage standout began the season as a starter but was moved to the bullpen early in the year. Now he's a key piece of the Hoosiers' relief corps as they get set to open the NCAA Tournament against Texas A&M in the Austin (Texas) Regional today.
The Hoosiers were in the tournament in 2017 during Saalfrank's freshman season, but he senses a difference in this team.
“I think this year the team's just a little more together,” the 6-foot-2 lefty said. “Our roles are a little different. We've endured a lot more change this year – not in a bad way – and people have had to step up and do things they probably weren't expected to do; I think myself included.”
Saalfrank started eight games and pitched eight games in relief as a freshman, with a 5.58 ERA. He started in the early part of this season, but by his own admission, the starts didn't “go as well as we wanted them to.”
He moved to the bullpen and has been better there, putting up a 3.86 ERA and holding opponents to a .192 batting average. The transition to reliever helped the Hoagland native pitch all-out all the time. He said when he was starting, he'd try to hold some stamina in reserve for expected later innings.
“As a starter, my biggest issue is I would kind of try to pace myself,” he said. “But as a reliever you don't know when you're coming out, so you kind of just give it everything you've got in that one inning, and when you get taken out you get taken out.”
That new mentality has helped Saalfrank unlock some velocity that he hadn't previously possessed at IU. As a starter, his fastball was averaging 86-87 mph, but it has since ticked up to 87-89, with a few 90s mixed in, something his coaches have noticed as well.
Coach Chris Lemonis said he has confidence in Saalfrank's performance out of the bullpen and expects him to have a significant impact in the tournament.
“Andrew has done a much better job at throwing strikes in pressure situations this year,” said Lemonis, who has taken the Hoosiers to the NCAA Tournament in three of his four years leading the program. “He is one of our go-to bullpen guys right now.”
In addition to learning not to pace himself, Saalfrank has worked to not try to do too much. It's a lesson he originally learned at Heritage, where he was an all-state player in 2015 and 2016.
“Sometimes I'd try to strike everybody out,” he said of his time with the Patriots. “I think toward the end of my career at Heritage, I kind of tried to trust my teammates more to make the plays. ... I think the way to have success in college is to trust everyone behind you and let them do what their job is.”
Saalfrank's past as a starter makes him valuable to Lemonis. Not only can he be called on to pitch multiple innings out of the bullpen, as he's done often this season, but he can also start a game in a pinch. That will be important if Indiana makes a deep tournament run and plays several games in a row without much rest.
“I'm just going to do whatever coach has asked me to do and do it to the best of my ability,” Saalfrank said.