BY STEVE KRAH
Robbie Berger will be working with numbers when he graduates.
Right now the senior right-handed pitcher is putting up some impressive digits for the Indiana University South Bend baseball team.
A fifth-year senior playing for head coach Doug Buysse and associate head coach/pitching coach Zane Gonzalez, Berger is scheduled to graduate this spring with an Accounting. He already has a job lined up in that field.
As a pitcher, the 23-year-old has 11 mound appearances (10 in relief) in 2023 heading into a home game today (April 25) against Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference foe Saint Francis (Ill.) at Rex Weade Stadium in Granger and is 1-2 with three saves and a 2.63 earned run average.
In 51 1/3 innings, he has 42 strikeouts and just three walks, three hit batsmen and one wild pitch.
“I’ve never been a hard thrower in my life,” says Berger. “I’ve always kind of relied on making batters get themselves out.
“I’m always going to give up hits and that’s part of the game. But if I can eliminate walks and hit-by-pitches it makes it that much harder to score runs.”
Berger averages 7.4 K’s per nine innings.
“I never really try to strike out guys,” says Berger. “I just try to be around the (strike) zone.”
The 5-foot-10, 200-pounder throws from a high three-quarter arm slot and uses a four-seam fastball that sits at 83 to 85 mph, a straight change-up, cutter (thrown as hard as possible with slider-like movement) and a “1-to-7” curveball.
The way Berger is used reflects his team’s new approach to pitching.
“At IUSB — for the most part — we changed around the way we attack games,” says Berger. “We’re trying to steal outs essentially.
“In the past, our back-end bullpen guys had trouble getting outs. So we put those guys at the front of the game and see if they can get through three innings and have our normal starters from past years come in an close out the game.
“We flip the script a little bit (closer, middle relief then starter).”
It’s the NAIA Titans’ take on the “opener” thing that the Tampa Bay Rays have done successfully in the majors.
“The mindset of the pitching staff is to constantly get to the next guy,” says Berger. “There’s 27 outs and we want to get them as fast as possible.”
In Berger’s 2023 relief outings, he has been used for 4, 3, 4, 4, 6, 6, 6, 6, 4 and 5 innings.
Born and raised in South Bend, Berger played travel ball for the Indiana Land Sharks 10U until his junior year at John Glenn High School in Walkerton, Ind.
He credits Land Sharks coaches John Kehoe, Tom Washburn and Dennis Ryans for guiding his early baseball path.
John Nadolny was his head coach at Glenn.
“He’s a great guy and was fun to play baseball for,” says Berger of “Nud.” “He wants the best out of his players and was good at pushing and motivating us.”
Berger was selected for the 2018 Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association North/South All-Star Series in South Bend. He did not play and underwent Tommy John surgery that summer.
He was invited by head coach Kevin Bowers to Lincoln Trail College in Robinson, Ill., where he was part of the team while rehabbing from his procedure.
To be closer to home, he transferred to IUSB.
While still recovering, he played some with Buysse’s summer team in 2019. He played for Buysse’s summer team in 2021 and took last summer off to concentrate of weight training and arm care.
What are Berger’s top qualities as an athlete?
“Consistent and hard-working,” says Berger. “Day in and day out, you’re going to get the same from me.”
The righty made three starts with a complete game and went 2-1 and 19 strikeouts and no walks in 18 innings in 2020 — the season cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In 2021, Berger made 10 mound appearances (all starts) with two complete games and was 5-4 with 53 strikeouts and 14 walks in 53 1/3 innings.
In 2022, he started seven times in 14 outings with two complete games and was 2-2 with 52 K’s and 12 walks in 42 2/3 innings.
Robbie is the son of educator and boys basketball Robb Berger, who has 387 wins in 25 seasons and is in his second stint at Mishawaka Marian High School. He teaches at South Bend Washington High School.
Robbie says his father has always been able to pick up on body language.
“If I had a bad day and he noticed it, he said, ‘you better change that right now,’” says Robbie Berger of Robb. “The stuff you can control the most is attitude and body language.”
Grandfather Bob Berger, an Elkhart County Sports Hall of Fame inductee and Nappanee (Ind.) High School graduate, coached basketball in South Bend for 32 years, including 20 as head coach at Riley High School.
“He tells me to try to stay positive,” says Robbie Berger of Bob. “He tells me I have stuff to work on if I had a bad day — stuff like that.”
Robbie is two years older than sister Cassee, who is an IUSB junior.