BLOOMINGTON, IND.—Chad Clark’s first home run of the season couldn’t have come at a better time.
The undersized Indiana second baseman had just botched a ground ball that gave Valparaiso a comfortable three-run lead going into the bottom of the ninth.
After back-to-back RBI doubles by Dustin DeMuth and Casey Smith made it a 4-3 ballgame, Clark stepped into the box with redemption on his mind. With the Hoosiers just two outs away from being upset by fourth-seeded Valparaiso on their home turf, Clark deposited a hanging slider by Crusaders closer Karch Kowalczyk into the left-field bullpen. The two-run, walk-off blast gave Indiana just its second NCAA tournament victory ever, 5-4, and sent 3,000 Hoosier fans at Bart Kaufman Field into a frenzy.
“That’s never happened to me in my life,” Clark said. “I’ve never had a walk-off hit. I think we saw all of the people there and wanted to give them a show all the way down to the last out. And we did.”
It wasn’t how Indiana head coach Tracy Smith scripted it, though.
After being shut out for seven innings by Valparaiso righthander Cole Webb, the Hoosiers tried to do anything to get their high-powered offense rolling. Switch-hitting outfielder Casey Smith went 2-for-4 with two doubles from both sides of the plate. On the first one, Smith flipped to bat righthanded despite facing a righthander in Crusaders reliever Ben Mahar.
“I’ll probably lay awake tonight thinking ‘Was it our nerves? Were we too anxious?’ Or, I’m not going to deny that (Webb), he was on,” Tracy Smith said. “He had some pretty darn good hitters coming back saying they can’t see it. If you noticed, our lefthanders swung at a lot of back-foot breaking balls, and Casey came to me and said he thought he’d see it much better righthanded. But, he was on tonight and did a good job at keeping us in check.”
Kowalczyk had only given up one run the entire season, but Tracy Smith said he wasn’t surprised to see Clark come up as the hero, and that it’s yet another reminder of how quickly the tide can turn.
“He’s a tough guy,” Smith said. “There’ll be days in practice when he’ll do things that are the most bone-headed things you’ve ever seen in your life. And you can’t stay mad at him because you say something to him and he just looks right back at you and says, ‘My fault, coach. Won’t do it again.’ . . . I’m not surprised. He doesn’t let things bother him.
“That’s why we love this game and that’s why we hate this game. It can give you such a range of emotions in a short amount of time, and quite honestly, I was already formulating what I was going to say to these guys at the end of the game.”
Big Ten pitcher of the year Aaron Slegers did not make it past the fourth inning, but freshman righthander Scott Effross came in and provided strong relief to keep the game close. Effross turned in four hitless innings before unraveling a bit in the ninth.
“Slegers has been around the zone and attacking the zone, and that wasn’t him tonight,” Tracy Smith said. “I did not like what I was seeing from him. I thought he was pitching tentatively, and that’s not him. So whether it was nerves—I don’t think it was fatigue—he just wasn’t sharp tonight. But that’s the beauty of this is that you have quality guys to come in behind him. He’ll live to fight another day, I hope.”
Valparaiso will turn around and face third-seeded Florida at 1 p.m. ET on Saturday. The Gators lost 4-3 to Austin Peay State thanks to junior first baseman Michael Davis’ three-run homer in the bottom of the eighth inning.
Indiana and Austin Peay State are scheduled to face off at 6 p.m.