Indiana coach Tracy Smith went into the Big Ten Tournament looking for signs that his Hoosiers still realized its importance even though they won the conference’s regular season title for the first time since 1932 and are virtually assured a bid in the NCAA Tournament.
By the end of Thursday’s first inning, he had no reason to wonder if they were locked in.
The Hoosiers jumped on Minnesota starter D.J. Snelton with three runs on three doubles in the first inning. Redshirt sophomore right-hander Aaron Slegers gave up just one run in seven innings the Hoosiers held on to win 4-2 in their first Big Ten Tournament game at Target Field. Redshirt junior Ryan Halstead recorded his school record 10th save of the season and 21st career save.
No. 1 seed Indiana advances to play No. 2 seed Ohio State today at 8:05 p.m. Win that game, and the Hoosiers can clinch the title in the double-elimination tournament as early as Saturday’s 8:05 p.m. game.
With the victory, the Hoosiers — ranked No. 12 in Baseball America’s latest poll — not only came a step closer to ensuring that they will host one of the 16 NCAA Regionals, they may also have taken a stride toward one of the eight national seeds. Louisville, one of the teams that was considered likely to get one of the last seeds, went 0-2 in the Big East Tournament, which could leave the door open for the Hoosiers.
Indiana made a statement early that they weren’t going to face a similar fate. Left fielder Chris Sujka, hitting in the leadoff spot for just the second time this season, pounded a 1-0 pitch off Snelton that one-hopped the left field wall for a leadoff double. After a one-out walk by first baseman Sam Travis, designated hitter Scott Donley drove Sujka in with a ground-rule double to left. Shortstop Michael Basil followed with a sacrifice fly to score Travis. Third baseman Dustin DeMuth then crushed a ground-rule double on a 3-0 fastball to straightaway center to bring home Donley to make it 3-0.
That was plenty of run support for Slegers, who was named Big Ten Pitcher of the Year earlier this week. Slegers struck out seven batters and didn’t walk one in seven innings, surrendering just five hits and one run. He threw 64 of his 94 pitches for strikes, painting the corners with his fastball and mixing in a nasty curveball for a strikeout pitch.
“He’s a strike-thrower,” Smith told the Big Ten Network after the game. “When he does that, he’s pretty tough to beat because of the angle of his pitch. But the only way that he gets himself in trouble is walking people, but he really hasn’t done that all year. He’s solid, we needed that out of him. A strong start to start this thing off to keep the bullpen fresh. To me, it’s just another typical Aaron Slegers performance.”
Minnesota scored a run in the fifth on an RBI single by center fielder Troy Larson, but the Hoosiers answered with an RBI single by Donley in the bottom of that inning. Reliever Evan Bell gave up a pair of singles in the eighth before coming out for freshman Scott Effross, and the Golden Gophers ended up getting a run across on an RBI groundout by left fielder Andy Henkemeyer. Minnesota then got back-to-back two-out singles off Halstead in the ninth, but Halstead got Larson looking on a 2-2 fastball to end the game.