On a blistering, 90-degree Friday night in Minneapolis, Kyle Hart picked up his Division-I leading 10th win of the season despite giving up eight runs (all earned) on eight hits in 6.0 IP. The Indiana offense was up to the challenge of swinging toe-to-toe with the heavy-hitting Gophers and slugged their ace to a 12-8 win.
Standout freshman catcher Ryan Fineman led the way offensively with three hits and four RBIs, while Alex Krupa and Tony Butler both added three hits of their own and Craig Dedelow and Brian Wilhite drove in two each.
Having trailed 5-2 after two innings and 7-6 after four, Indiana knotted the game up at seven in the 5th before exploding for their final five runs in the Top of the 6th to put Hart in line for the win. After Hart exited with a four-run lead, Thomas Belcher and Jake Kelzer were nearly perfect the rest of the way as they closed out the series opener.
The Hoosiers were outgunned from the start on Saturday when Caleb Baragar showed up without his best stuff and allowed seven hits and five runs in just 3.2 IP. His counterpart, Dalton Sawyer, gave Minnesota a quality start, going 6.0 IP and allowing just two runs, while the Gophers gave him ample support to the tune of eight runs, all coming in the first six innings. Indiana threatened with four of their own in the 8th, but couldn't scratch out enough and dropped the ball game 8-6.
In Sunday's rubber match, the Hoosiers finally got Evan Bell his first victory of the season in a 3-2 triumph to take over first place in the Big Ten. Bell has had an up and down season, but his 3.56 ERA has been plenty good enough to be better than the 0-3 record he brought into the weekend (one of those losses even coming in a complete game effort against lowly Toledo). Finally, on Sunday, Indiana gave Bell just enough run support.
The veteran starter gave Chris Lemonis 5.2 IP while giving up just two runs. The Indiana offense got two in the 5th to tie the game after Butler walked to leadoff, Krupa singled him to third, Dedelow smacked an RBI ground-rule double, and the Gophers gave up another run on what should have been a routine groundout to the shortstop. The Hoosiers then pushed the eventual winning run across the plate in the 6th after another Gopher error allowed Austin Cangelosi to reach second and Wilhite singled him home.
B.J. Sabol and Kelzer combined for 3.1 IP of scoreless ball the rest of the way.
With just two weekends left of regular season baseball, the Hoosiers sit atop the Big Ten standings, but they are from being in the clear. Indiana is just 0.5 game up on Michigan and Minnesota, and 1.5 games up on Michigan State, and Minnesota has a breeze of a schedule compared to the other three.
Indiana hosts Illinois before closing at Nebraska the final weekend of the season. Michigan will play at Ohio State and at Illinois. And Michigan State travels to Iowa before finishing at home against Maryland.
Meanwhile, Minnesota will get to play at Purdue, who it appears Wisconsin could beat in baseball if they ever decided to start a program up again, and then host middle-of-the-pack Ohio State.
And the way the final two weeks go will be huge for Indiana's postseason hopes.
It appears that the breakneck pace of winning for the Hoosiers over the last few weeks has caught the attention of college baseball people. D1baseball.com's Aaron Fitt told folks on their weekly chat today "I think the Hoosiers are playing up to their potential. I think all of us here at D1Baseball liked their club heading into the season -- I know I did. The Big Ten was a jumble, but I think I said heading into the year that it wouldn't surprise me if those top five teams (Maryland, Michigan, MSU, Indiana and Nebraska) finished in any order. The one thing I did NOT see coming was Minnesota being up there. But Indiana has good talent and is playing with confidence. That team could be dangerous if it can win the conference tournament and get into a regional."
Collegiate Baseball has Indiana at No. 25 in their Top 30 this week.
But with people beginning to take notice that the Hoosiers are coming into their own, why would Fitt say IU can be dangerous "if it can win the conference tournament?"
Because just as we predicted when it was released, the embarrassingly soft non-conference schedule has come back to bite the Hoosiers. As the schedule was being released, we wrote, "So far, there just aren't any big nonconference matchups on the schedule outside of Fullerton. And if it stays that way, the Hoosiers won't have the luxury of playing garbage baseball for the better part of a month and still being able to fight their way into the tournament because of all the impressive wins."
Well, we were right. The non-conference strength of schedule came out to be 211th in the country, and IU struggled through it. The Hoosiers lost two of three to Middle Tennessee State, were swept by Fullerton, dropped a pair to Seton Hall, couldn't sweep Western Carolina or Toledo, and lost the Big Ten opening series to Rutger.
The result? An RPI ranking of 101, behind nine of the 12 Big Ten teams that they're ahead of in the standings.
How? A 10-9 road record, a 2-3 neutral site record, zero games played against the RPI Top 25 (only one Big Ten team in that category, Michigan), a 4-5 record against RPI 26-50, and mediocre results against mediocre competition, going 5-5 against RPI 51-100 and 7-6 against RPI 101-200. All 11 games that the Hoosiers are above .500 are a result of the 12-1 record against teams that are 200+ in the RPI.
How does D1baseball's Kendall Rogers see it? Repeatedly this weekend, his tweets suggested that the Hoosiers probably belong in the dance if they win the Big Ten outright, even if they don't win the tournament. But reasonable people can't put them in because the numbers are so bad.
Feel like Indiana should get in if it wins the regular season title, but don’t see the RPI getting there. https://t.co/qA6jgdk8rD— Kendall Rogers (@KendallRogersD1) May 9, 2016
A team that won’t make the postseason without winning the conference tourney is now in first place. Big series win. https://t.co/qjbDHS5DoB— Kendall Rogers (@KendallRogersD1) May 8, 2016
I think Indiana is one of those teams that clearly is a Top 64 team right now. However, yes, need to win B10T. https://t.co/5g4mwK9FVF— Kendall Rogers (@KendallRogersD1) May 8, 2016
Even an 8-0 finish, which would include one win over No. 6 Louisville (2nd in RPI) and Kentucky (45th in RPI), and three wins over both Illinois (66th in RPI) and Nebraska (54th in RPI), the Hoosiers would have just 36 wins against a laughable schedule, meaning it'll all come down to the Big Ten tournament.
So seeding becomes the thing to worry about for the program's fans. If the season ended today, the tournament would be seeded as follows:
1. Indiana vs. 8. Penn State (did not play in the regular season)
2. Michigan vs. 7. Maryland (did not play)
3. Minnesota vs. 6. Ohio State (play the last week of the season)
4. Michigan State vs. 5. Nebraska (series tied at 1-1 at time of publication)
So why so important for Indiana? Does being the home team matter that much? No. But avoiding Maryland could be everything.
While we biased folks at CQ believe that Kyle Hart should be the Pitcher of the Year for the Big Ten, the guy with the most talent may be Mike Shawaryn, the Terrapins ace. avoiding the Terps until after Shawaryn has thrown could mean staying alive an extra day, or avoiding the loser's bracket for an extra day.
Regardless of all the various scenarios what we can dive into in the coming weeks, two things are certain: 1. Indiana is going to have to win the Big Ten tournament. 2. You should enjoy the ride because they may be playing well enough to do just that.