A young fan sitting behind home plate paused his conversation to watch the incoming pitch. Moments later, his smile turned to a state of shock as he marveled at Indiana junior Matthew Ellis' 430 foot-grand slam during Indiana's 12-7 win against Illinois State on Tuesday night.
The slam into the night sky capped off a seven-run eighth inning to give Indiana a comfortable five-run lead heading into the ninth inning. The score remained unchanged as freshman pitcher Ryan Kraft struck out the side to secure the victory.
Though the fans at Bart Kaufman Field immediately celebrated Ellis' 17th home run of the season, Indiana head coach Jeff Mercer waited to show any emotion in the dugout. He was wary of Illinois State center fielder Ryan Cermak's defensive capabilities.
"After watching their center fielder rob about four hits today, I was hoping he wouldn't scale the wall like Spider-Man and bring it back," Mercer said. "I didn't say a word until I watched it land."
The ball easily cleared the wall, marking Ellis' 11th home run of the season that reached at least 400 feet.
Ellis achieved what Indiana failed to do against Minnesota in the second game of the doubleheader Sunday evening: score insurance runs to prevent the opposing team from staging a comeback.
"We were in the same situation (Tuesday) in the eighth inning of the second game against Minnesota," Mercer said. "You're up by one, you got the bases loaded, nobody out, and we don't push enough runs across to hang onto that game."
Tuesday's late-game scenario was almost the same as Sunday's, except Illinois State had already recorded one out to start the inning. Still, Ellis and the Hoosiers came through despite the pressure.
"It's a big situation," Ellis said. "There's been a couple of times where I've come up with those in the last couple of weeks, and I haven't got to capitalize. Just to finally feel, want to come through and get that one when we needed it. It was a big feeling."
Ellis delivered the final punch, but he said he credits his teammates with their contributions earlier in the inning. They gained a one-run lead before he stepped in the batter's box.
After trailing 7-5 to start the bottom of the eighth inning, Hunter Jessee and Phillip Glasser both walked with the bases loaded to tie the game 7-7. Freshman Brock Tibbitts beat out an infield ground ball with two outs, keeping the inning alive and giving Indiana an 8-7 lead.
Illinois State manager Steve Holm ran from the dugout to show his frustration with the first base umpire for calling Tibbitts safe. Holm thought Tibbitts was out and that the inning should have ended. After Ellis hit the grand slam, Holm continued to voice his frustrations and was ejected from the game.
Before and after the slam, Indiana pitchers David Platt, Nathan Stahl and Ryan Kraft kept the Redbirds at bay. The trio pitched three scoreless innings combined, spanning from the seventh to ninth innings.
"David had surgery one year ago today, comes out and pitches today and gets the win," Mercer said. "Nate did a good job bouncing back today. Kraft had 25 pitches to use and that was the best he's been all year."
Ellis has appreciated fans piling into Bart Kaufman Field from March to May. He said he believes the home advantage makes a considerable difference. In the final home game of the year, Ellis sent fans and players cheering in a fitting close.
"It was just a great moment," Ellis said. "Great way to end."
After ending their home closer on a high note, the Hoosiers will end the regular season with a three-game road series against Iowa starting on Thursday, May 19.