After a four-month grind, the stage is set for postseason play to begin for eight Big Ten teams the Big Ten Tournament, which is set for May 25-29 in Omaha, Nebraska, the home of the College World Series.
For Indiana, a strong second half in Big Ten play propelled the Hoosiers to finish with a record of 25-30 overall, 10-14 in conference play, earning a berth to the double-elimination tournament. The Hoosiers won key series against Nebraska, Illinois, Michigan and Minnesota that turned their season around. Indiana had a chance to clinch a spot in the Big Ten Tournament last weekend in Iowa City, but got swept by the Hawkeyes in the final regular season series, including a 30-16 loss in a game where they led 13-2. I thought the football season started in September…
Regardless, the Hoosiers got help elsewhere around the league that allowed them to sneak into the tournament.
Indiana will begin its quest for its eighth Big Ten Championship as the eight seed on Wednesday, taking on the top-seeded Terrapins from Maryland, who won their first-ever Big Ten regular-season baseball title. The Terps went 44-10 and 18-5 in the Big Ten, are currently riding a seven game winning streak, and are currently ranked No. 15 in the national rankings. The two teams will meet for the first time this season at 6 p.m. ET on Wednesday in the first round.
Winning the first game in a double-elimination tournament is crucial and of course would be ideal for Indiana to pull off the upset. But, no matter what Indiana does against Maryland, its second opponent will be a team IU beat earlier this season in a weekend series. That team will either be the No. 4 seed Illinois or the No. 5 seed Michigan on Thursday at either 2 p.m. or 10 p.m.
Baseball is a game that is played in series, not single games. Given that the Big Ten Tournament is played in single-game rounds, it can become unpredictable. Any of the eight teams can come away with the championship. Here is how Indiana can shock the conference and earn the automatic NCAA bid:
1) Hitting the long ball
Indiana ranked fourth in the conference with 71 home runs on the year, and nearly half of them were hit by catcher Matthew Ellis (18) and outfielder Carter Mathison (17, a record for an IU freshman). Maryland pitchers gave up the fourth-most home runs in the conference, so if the Hoosiers can take the Terps deep, they give themselves at least a shot at upsetting the favorites to win the tournament. Sure, playing half the schedule at Bart Kaufman Field certainly helps, but this team can turn other ballparks into Home Run Derby sites as well with the power that’s constant throughout the Hoosier lineup.
2) Ty Bothwell and Reese Sharp being on their games
Yes, believe it or not, a couple of Indiana relievers can be the X-factor in this tournament. Even though Indiana has lost plenty of games because of the bullpen — all three games against Rutgers, the final game versus Minnesota just to name a few — one reliever has stood out the last few weeks. Bothwell has turned into the shutdown reliever Indiana has been desperately looking for since fellow southpaw Grant Holderfield started to struggle in mid-March. Bothwell sports a team-best 4.03 ERA and earned Big Ten Pitcher of the Week after throwing a career-high seven innings and 111 pitches against Minnesota, not allowing a single run.
Sharp has lived up to his last name and has allowed just two earned runs in the past month while taking the reins as the Indiana closer, racking up four saves, tied for the team lead in that category. If these two can be as good as they’ve been, it takes a ton of pressure off the shaky Indiana rotation.
3) Continuing to be the comeback kids
Say what you want about the Hoosiers this season and how they’ve been a mild disappointment, but one thing hasn’t changed all year: This team won’t go down quietly. Scoring six runs in the bottom of the ninth against Northwestern back in early April when down 7-0 was the first sign that this team never gives up. Sure, they fell one run short of a remarkable comeback, but it was a sign in what felt like a lost season that they were going to fight until the last out was recorded.
The turning point of the season was the win against Indiana State in Terre Haute back on April 12. Down to its final strike, Indiana scored four runs on back-to-back home runs against the Sycamores to win 6-5. Mathison hit a pinch-hit, game-tying, three-run bomb and then Tyler Doanes followed up with a solo shot of his own to cap off arguably the best Indiana win on the season. Since that game, Indiana has won four of six series, all against fellow Big Ten schools.
So I’m saying, there’s a chance. It would take a remarkable five-day, full-team effort to pull off the impossible, but as this sport has taught us in years prior, don’t count anyone out. This team is coming in with plenty of confidence and the “why not us” mentality. The Hoosiers won the last Big Ten Tournament held in 2019, and there is an outside chance they hoist the trophy again on Sunday.