LEXINGTON, Ky. — Here are a couple of things you don’t see every day in an NCAA baseball regional:
A guy need 25 pitches to escape a wobbly first inning and then throws a complete game (Boy, did Indiana need that from Jonathan Stiever Saturday, after losing in 12 innings the night before, and now trying to survive the pitching meat-grinder that it is the loser’s bracket).
A hitter go 1-for-15 in his conference tournament, but then hit three home runs in five at-bats (Ditto, from Logan Sowers, who struck out eight times in three Big Ten games last week but has six hits and 17 total bases in two regional outings and sent shots out of Cliff Hagan Stadium in every direction Saturday).
The Hoosiers’ 11-2 breeze past Ohio was noticeable on a busy NCAA tournament Saturday because of a couple of reasons. (A) Indiana is a dangerous if somewhat unpredictable opponent for the rest of this weekend in Lexington. And (B) few teams in the nation have ridden the thrill ride the Hoosiers have the past two weeks.
“I challenged them,” coach Chris Lemonis said of 34-23-2 Indiana. “Somebody’s coming out of the loser’s bracket and winning a regional. Somewhere, 16 sites, somebody’s coming out of the loser’s bracket, and that’s our goal.”
Talk about a flair for the dramatic. In the past fortnight, the Hoosiers...
- Opened the Big Ten tournament by blowing a 4-1 lead and losing to Minnesota 5-4.
- Stayed alive by outlasting Michigan 5-4 in 13 innings, and 4 hours and 28 minutes — by time, the longest game in Big Ten tournament history. Indiana let go of a 4-3 lead in the ninth. The two teams combined to strike out 26 times.
- Were eliminated by Minnesota 9-8 after leading 6-0 in the sixth and 8-4 in the eighth. The Gophers opened their eighth with five consecutive hits, including a three-run homer to take the lead.
- Lost their opener at the Lexington regional Friday to NC State 7-6 in 12 innings. The tying run was at third on the last out. This one took even longer — 4:33 — than the Minnesota game. The Hoosiers had leads of 3-1, 4-2 and 5-4. The Indiana pitchers were dodging trouble all night; NC State put the leadoff hitter on base in 10 of the 12 innings.
You wonder what all that can do to a coach.
“Gray hair,” Lemonis answered. But he mentioned Indiana has had lots of games like that this year, which is why it was so important that the hits just keep on coming against Ohio, especially those by Sowers that were landing in the parking lot.
“We’re trying to add on and add on and add on, because we’ve given up leads of seven, six, five. Very few games like this for us this year. We’re always in a dogfight, it feels like. The kids are used to it.”
One good way to cure a shaky bullpen: Never have to take out the starter. Plus, score lots of runs.
So what got into Sowers?
“Just trying to stay a little bit more relaxed,” he said. “I think I was trying to do too much in the Big Ten tournament.”
The first two blasts Saturday, both the opposite way to right-center, he knew were gone. The third, pulled to left, he thought was a harmless fly. “It just kept going.”
And what was wrong with Stiever in the first inning, when Bobcats scored twice, and a pitcher who had six walks in 68 innings all season issued three in the first six hitters?
“I probably was a little too pumped up,” he said.
“He didn’t breathe for the first four hitters,” Lemonis said. “He held his breath, which is amazing you can hold your breath that long.”
A double play got Stiever out of the inning, he found his rhythm, and that was it for Ohio. Stiever went through the last eight innings in 94 pitches. So the Hoosiers, who missed the NCAA tournament in 2016, moved on from Friday’s excruciating loss and lived to play another day. But it had been a restless Friday night for Lemonis.
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“It was tough. I got a text from one of my buddies this morning and he said, 'What were you doing last year?' I said, 'All right, I’m going to turn the page real quick, because last year I was sitting on the couch watching everybody else play.'”
His team will play at least one more day, with a rested pitching staff and a potent lineup, and a recent history of raucous games. Keep an eye on Indiana. It probably won’t be boring.