MINNEAPOLIS—Top-seeded Indiana flexed its offensive muscle Friday night, banging out 17 hits in an 11-3 win against Ohio State that propelled the Hoosier’s to Saturday night’s Big Ten tournament title round. The winner of Saturday’s Nebraska-OSU elimination game will have to beat the Hoosiers twice to win the conference championship.
Just in time for the postseason, the Hoosiers are once again starting to look like the team that bashed its way to 18 consecutive wins in March and April. A big part of that is the re-emergence of sophomore third baseman Sam Travis in the middle of the lineup. Travis had a quiet second half, but he remained in the No. 3 spot in the lineup, and he went 3-for-4 with four RBIs Thursday. He ripped an RBI single through the left side in the third, delivered a sacrifice fly to center in the fifth, smashed a solo homer to left in the sixth, and capped his day with an RBI double in the eighth.
“I think it’s very important,” Indiana coach Tracy Smith said of Travis’ breakout game. “We’ve been saying all year, when you look at the early part of our season and what we were accomplishing, the win streak and all that, at that time, we were having some of our middle-of-the-order guys firing on all cylinders. When we hit that stretch toward the end of the season when we became what I would consider kind of a normal college offensive team, some of those guys in the middle weren’t getting it done, Sam specifically. So, if we could get him going again like he’s capable, I think this team could be as good a team as there is in the country offensively. You still need pitching and defense if you’re going to really make a run at it. Defense, self-described and as everybody describes, is kind of our Achilles’ heel. So if we’re going to be a little deficient in that, we’re going to need Sam Travis to really hit the baseball. And hopefully tonight will kind of jumpstart him.”
Even Travis’ flyout to center field in the first inning was tattooed—Ohio State’s Joe Ciamacco made a jumping catch up against the wall. The first three Indiana hitters of the game hit balls right on the screws against OSU lefty Brian King. Buckeye left fielder Tim Wetzel made a jumping catch up against the left-field wall on a drive by leadoff man Chris Sujka, and No. 2 hitter Kyle Schwarber put the Hoosiers ahead by blasting a solo homer to right.
“I was very pleased with the way we came out and set the tone offensively, even though we didn’t have a lot to show for it—we were putting some good swings on the baseball,” Smith said. “At that point, I could tell our guys were kind of locked in offensively.”
The Hoosiers put runners in scoring position in the second, third and fourth innings but produced just one run, and they headed into the bottom of the fifth trailing 3-2. But they rapped out six hits to score six unearned runs in the frame to take control of the game for good.
As we wrote Thursday, Indiana is a very aggressive offensive team, and it pounced on hittable fastballs throughout the game, with Travis leading the way.
“It felt good to get back in the swing of things,” Travis said. “I feel like I feed off the other guys, they keep hitting the ball hard and seeing good fastball strikes. That’s what we’ve got to do—when we lay off the offspeed and hit fastball strikes, we’re going to be successful, and that’s what we did today.”
Erstad’s Gamble Pays Off
With a losing overall record, Nebraska knows it won’t make the NCAA tournament unless it wins the Big Ten tournament. Winning a second game in Minneapolis wouldn’t do the Huskers any good unless they could win a third and fourth game Saturday, and then a fifth game Sunday.
So rather than use No. 1 starter Christian DeLeon (who missed last week with elbow soreness but was ready to go Friday) in the elimination game against Minnesota, Erstad elected to start senior righthander Ryan Hander, who handed started a game since early April. Hander responded by keeping the Gophers off the board for the first four innings, and Nebraska seized control with a 6-spot in the fourth en route to a 7-4 win. Hander ran out of gas in the fourth, surrendering four runs, but he did his job.
“We’re trying to find a way to win the tournament,” Erstad said. “What I didn’t want to happen is DeLeon warms up, gets hot, and we pop a six-spot in the first inning. And yeah, he goes and throws six innings of shutout baseball, that’s great. But now we’ve got to up against a 1 or 2 seed with guys that haven’t started much. We’ve got a chance to play a (Minnesota) team that’s already played nine innings (earlier Friday), we catch one of their non-weekend starters, even though he pitched a very good arm, and we had a chance to score some runs. That’s kind of how we wanted to set it up. Now we’ve got DeLeon, our Friday night starter, on a couple weeks’ rest, going against the 1 or 2 team. I’ll chances there.”
Luke Bublitz followed with 3 1/3 innings of scoreless relief, pitching “the best since I’ve been here,” as Erstad put it. The Huskers closed out the victory without using closer Dylan Vogt, who threw Thursday and took the loss.
“I knew exactly it was a risky situation,” Erstad said. “I was in a position to not start our Friday guy and not have our closer pitch, and be out of the tournament. But at the end of the day, you’ve to sell something to your team, you’ve got to show them a blueprint of how you’re going to win this tournament, and I laid it out for them this morning. We’ll see how it goes.”
Nebraska’s offense and defense was led by sophomore second baseman Pat Kelly, who capped the six-run fourth with a three-run homer to left field. He added a double and a run in the seventh, and also made a couple of slick defensive plays, showing good hands, a quick transfer and a strong arm.
A Minnesota native, Kelly shined in front of a number of family and friends at Target Field. His blue-collar, high-energy approach to the game makes him a perfect fit in Erstad’s program.
“I think we have a lot of those guys,” Erstad said. “He sets the tone with his attitude toward practice and the game, he’s very intense. He fits our mold very well, how you approach the game, how you respect it. He picks his spots when to fire guys up and does a nice job. I’m not going to put that on him to be that guy, he just needs to keep doing what he’s doing because he’s doing a nice job with it, and those things will come naturally.”
Illini Are Down, But Not Out
Illinois was eliminated from the Big Ten tournament in Friday’s first game, losing to Minnesota 3-1. The Illini went 1-2 at Target Field, beating Michigan on Thursday but losing to the Gophers twice.
But as we wrote Thursday, Illinois should be safe for an at-large bid, thanks to a strong RPI (No. 36 after Friday’s loss) and a solid 14-10 showing in the Big Ten.
“I still think we’re an NCAA tournament team, I believe that,” Illinois coach Dan Hartleb said Thursday. “We’ve beaten good people, I think we’re a good club. One of the things the selection committee looks at is the type of athletes you have, how you perform in close games, and we’ve been very good. Even if you look at our losses this year, we really haven’t been blown out, they’ve been tight games. This is a team that’s capable of getting into the NCAA tournament, it’s a team that’s capable of winning regionals, winning super regionals. I think we’re capable of getting to Omaha. You have to play well, have to do things, it’s not going to be a cakewalk, by any means.”
Illinois has a number of playmakers in its lineup, led by Big Ten player of the year Justin Parr, who had a quiet week with the bat but did hit some balls hard that were right at defenders. He’s a good athlete in center field and showed off a strong arm on a few occasions.
Just brother Jordan hits behind him in the cleanup spot and provides some thump in the middle, with six home runs. Leadoff man Thomas Lindauer has nine homers, and he showcased good actions and a strong, accurate arm at shortstop this week.
The Illini lack overpowering arms, but they all seem to throw strikes, have good movement on their fastballs and compete. This team should represent the Big Ten well in regionals.