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Indiana’s inability to finish comeback reflects recent struggles

Pauly Milto delivers to the plate. (Josh Eastern/HN)

What could have been a miraculous comeback for Indiana Baseball fell just short in a high scoring 8-7 loss to Illinois State Friday in Louisville. The Hoosiers are now into the losers’ bracket and will face either the Cardinals or University of Illinois-Chicago Saturday morning, continuing the first round of regional play.

Through the first six and a half innings of baseball, Indiana looked nothing like a tournament team against Illinois State. Brent Headrick, the Redbirds’ starter and Missouri Valley Conference Pitcher of The Year, was dealing and had total control of the game.

Indiana’s bats couldn’t hit Headrick. The junior tossed a career-high 14 strikeouts and allowed only three hits and four total baserunners in a six-inning appearance. The only real damage done was a two-run home run from sophomore Elijah Dunham in the first inning. After that, the tall lefty was practically untouchable.

To make matters worse, Indiana’s Pauly Milto struggled immensely from the mound, giving up 14 hits and seven runs, while managing to record just three strikeouts in 5.1 innings of work. Additionally, in the top of the sixth, when trying to make a diving catch in center field, junior Matt Gorski left the game with injury.

Despite all of the Hoosiers’ struggles throughout the first six innings, once the seventh came around, the entire script and outlook of the game flipped.

Entering the bottom of the seventh, Indiana was down 7-2. Illinois State had just padded its previous 4-2 lead with three more runs in the sixth. The game was looking close to over.

It only just started to get interesting though, in an inning where Indiana went through its entire lineup, the Hoosiers used five singles, four walks, and a hit-by-pitch to tie the game at seven apiece.

What made the comeback so odd was the fact that Indiana abandoned its home run-heavy identity at the plate. Though Dunham launched the team’s 91st long ball of the year to initially open the scoring, the Hoosiers didn’t use a single home run to get back into the game. Two of the walks and the hit-by-pitch of Ryan Fineman occurred when the bases were loaded. Dunham and Jeremy Houston both had RBI singles.

The tied score wouldn’t last long though as Joe Aeilts doubled to left field and scored Derek Parola, giving Illinois State the one-run lead in the eighth inning.

A last-ditch effort was made in the bottom of the ninth by the Hoosiers with Cole Barr singling through the left side of the infield and stealing his way to third before Houston struck out looking to end the game.

The loss puts the Hoosiers’ season on the line as they compete in their elimination game Saturday at 11 a.m. ET.

Who Indiana will start on the mound remains a big question. Head Coach Jeff Mercer will likely choose between Saturday starter Tanner Gordon — who pitched in a loss to Minnesota in the Big Ten Tournament — and junior Andrew Saalfrank. The eventual Big Ten Pitcher of the Year, Saalfrank was the Hoosiers’ primary Sunday starter over the course of the regular season, but has yet to see the field since the beginning of postseason play.

Regardless of who takes the hill, the Hoosiers are going to need a complete effort for a full nine innings Saturday morning if the desire to play for Omaha remains.

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