Carter Mathison uncoiled, launched the baseball into orbit and then stood at home plate to watch it fly. As the ball soared far over the right-field fence at Indiana's Bart Kaufman Stadium, Mathison gave his bat a jaunty flip and started trotting slowly around the bases for the 16th time this season.
The Homestead graduate's 403-foot home run Sunday against Minnesota helped propel the Hoosiers to a 12-0 triumph. Earlier in the season, those elements – hard-hit balls from Mathison and IU victories – were rare: on March 13, Mathison was hitting only .156 with two home runs and the Hoosiers were 6-9 following a three-game sweep at the hands of Troy.
Now, the powerful lefty from Fort Wayne is hitting .278, getting on base at a .406 clip and slugging a team-best .614. His 16 home runs are tied for the team lead and are an Indiana freshman record. Former IU slugger Kyle Schwarber, the No. 4 overall draft pick in 2014 and who won a World Series with the Chicago Cubs, had eight long balls when he was a Freshman All-American in 2012.
Eight of Mathison's home runs have come in the last 16 games, 11 of which were won by Indiana.
“I'm just a lot more calm at the plate,” Mathison said. “I'm not feeling like I have to do too much, just sticking to a line-drive, ground-ball approach up the middle. ... Just being able to be more relaxed and comfortable at the plate has helped a lot.”
That comfort in the box against college pitching did not come easily. Mathison won Indiana Mr. Baseball honors last year with Homestead, leading the state with 16 home runs and batting .515.
But when he arrived at Indiana in the fall, the 6-foot-1, 215-pound Mathison found his swing wasn't quick enough to handle college pitching. In a series of exhibition games, strikeouts piled up and IU coach Jeff Mercer noticed.
Mercer and assistant coach Zach Weatherford worked to rebuild Mathison's swing, pushing him to widen his stance and tinkering with his hand placement. The result is a more compact swing that begins with far more bend in the knees.
“I have to get a better base to be able to react to the different off-speeds and the different speeds of pitches,” Mathison said. “Widening out and really getting lower has helped me just control myself better and react to pitches better. ... I feel like I can do a lot more and control myself.”
By late in the fall – October or November by Mathison's reckoning – he once again felt comfortable at the plate.
Key to his transition was his belief in Mercer, the fourth-year coach who led the Hoosiers to the NCAA Tournament in 2019.
“I have a lot of trust in Mercer, and he knows a lot about hitting and what to do,” said Mathison, an outfielder who has started 49 of 51 games for the Hoosiers. “So it was about trusting him with my swing and knowing he's going to have the best options for me.”
Mercer returned that trust in the beginning of the season. Despite the changes to his swing in the fall, Mathison still struggled when his freshman season began, collecting just two hits through his first seven games without a home run (though he did walk seven times).
Through those struggles, Mercer never dropped the rookie from the lineup, insisting Mathison would figure it out. He and the Hoosiers are seeing the fruits of that faith now.
“He's one of the best freshmen in the country,” Mercer told IUHoosiers.com. “That's what you're seeing on full display. ... I believe in that kid. I believe in his ability and his work ethic.”
Mathison is one of a group of Indiana freshmen – including Josh Pyne, Brock Tibbitts and Evan Goforth – who have matured into important contributors. They have helped the Hoosiers win four straight series and climb to a tie for sixth in the Big Ten, and they're on the cusp of clinching a spot in the eight-team Big Ten Tournament.
“We're very confident,” Mathison said. “We've always known we're a good team. Maybe earlier in the year some things didn't go our way or just unfortunate luck, but we know how good we are and we're finally seeing the results we've been wanting to see. We have one of the best offenses in the country, we believe, and that just helps us with our confidence.
“These next two to three years, I think we can have a really talented group.”