The No. 2 seeded Indiana baseball team held on to defeat No. 7 seeded Illinois 4-3 in its first game of the Big Ten Tournament Tuesday afternoon at Charles Schwab Field Omaha.
On account of a four-inning pitcher’s duel supplied by Indiana hurlers senior Ben Seiler and freshman Ethan Phillips, as well as Illinois starter junior Jack Wenninger, neither team broke the shutout until the fifth frame.
Illinois senior infielder Branden Comia doubled to put the Illini on the board 1-0 in the top half of the inning, chasing Phillips from the game. He was replaced by freshman right-handed pitcher Evan Whiteaker, who worked out of the one-on, no-out jam.
In the bottom of the fifth, Indiana senior catcher Peter Serruto doubled with one out, scoring freshman second baseman Tyler Cerny to tie the game 1-1. The Hoosiers took a 2-1 lead after newly crowned Big Ten Freshman of the Year Devin Taylor reached on a fielder’s choice.
Prior to the fifth inning, Wenninger was masterful, quieting the Indiana bats in a sharp turn of form compared to his first outing against the Hoosiers this season. In the series finale between the two teams April 15, Wenninger was charged with the loss after surrendering six of Indiana’s 16 runs on seven hits over just 3 ⅓ innings. Wenninger’s final line from Tuesday’s game: 4⅓ innings pitched with the same total of seven hits, but just two earned runs allowed.
The middle innings were dominated by Whiteaker. In just his third appearance since the start of April, the freshman allowed one hit over 4 ⅓ innings, striking out six Illinois hitters.
The Hoosiers added two critical insurance runs in the eighth inning on a seeing-eye single from senior outfielder Hunter Jessee and a groundout from sophomore third baseman Josh Pyne, the latter of whom turned in yet another highlight-reel play on defense in the early stages of the game.
Indiana’s eighth-inning offense, which stretched its advantage to three runs, turned out to be the difference in the contest. After Whiteaker allowed the leadoff man to reach base in the top of the ninth, he secured the first out of the inning on a fielder’s choice before being relieved by fellow freshman Brayden Risedorph.
Risedorph struck out the first batter he faced but surrendered a single and a walk to load the bases. Senior outfielder Cam McDonald, who was 0-4 prior to his plate appearance in the ninth, hit a high-hopping grounder to senior shortstop Phillip Glasser.
The usually sure-handed infielder committed a throwing error, with the ball skipping past sophomore first baseman Brock Tibbitts. Two runs scored on the play, with the scoreboard now reading 4-3 in favor of the Hoosiers. The tying run moved to third base and the go-ahead run stood on first.
Hard-hitting junior infielder Drake Westcott stepped to the plate hoping to keep the rally alive, but Risedorph got the best of the power hitter, inducing a harmless pop fly that was hauled in by Jessee in left field, stopping the Illinois comeback in its tracks.
Risedorph earned his sixth save of the season and kept the Hoosiers’ history of conference tournament success alive. Indiana has now won games in nine of its last 10 Big Ten Tournaments. The Hoosiers hold an 11-0 record in games this season where Serruto has a run batted in. Cerny and Serruto were a combined 4-for-6 at the plate, accounting for one run batted in and two runs scored.
In postseason play, heroic performances often come from unexpected places. On Tuesday, Indiana’s X factor was Whiteaker. With very limited action since the early stages of the season, Indiana head coach Jeff Mercer said Whiteaker’s performance surprised him.
“I didn’t imagine 4 ⅓ innings,” Mercer said after the game on the Big Ten Network broadcast. “That’s a big ask of a freshman who’s thrown one inning in about a month.”
Whiteaker said postgame that Indiana can sustain its success in the conference tournament if it stays within its established game plan and trusts its offense.
“We’ll have great success if we can do all those things,” Whiteaker said on the broadcast.
The Hoosiers are off Wednesday, returning to action versus Iowa at 3 p.m. EST on Thursday in Omaha, Nebraska. The third-seeded Hawkeyes beat sixth-seeded Michigan 13-3 in eight innings to begin the tournament.
When Indiana and Iowa met in the regular season April 7-9, the Hoosiers took the series 2-1 in emphatic fashion. As is the case with all games in the conference tournament, Thursday’s game between the Hoosiers and the Hawkeyes will be broadcast on Big Ten Network.