Big Ten baseball is getting better and better, Gophers coach John Anderson keeps saying. On Thursday night, Indiana helped prove his point.
The Hoosiers are the conference’s showcase team this year, and they looked the part in defeating Minnesota 4-2 in a Big Ten tournament winners’ bracket game at Target Field.
Indiana (41-13) jumped on Gophers starter DJ Snelten for three first-inning runs, knowing that lead was in good hands with Aaron Slegers, the Big Ten Pitcher of the Year.
Slegers (9-1) held Minnesota to one run on five hits over seven innings. He had seven strikeouts, no walks and threw 64 of his 94 pitches for strikes.
“You don’t get to be pitcher of the year if you’re not good,” Anderson said. “We knew we were going to have a battle on our hands. We couldn’t afford to get behind like that.”
Snelten (5-2) had pitched eight shutout innings Saturday against Illinois in a game the Gophers needed to win just to qualify for the conference tournament. This time, he settled into a groove after the first inning, but the damage was done.
“It was one of those days where I could roll over, or I could keep my head up and try to keep the game somewhat under control,” Snelten said. “So I did what I could.”
The Gophers had chances against Indiana’s bullpen. Troy Larson delivered his third hit and scored to make it 4-2 in the eighth, and Minnesota put two runners aboard in the ninth. But Hoosiers closer Ryan Halstead struck out Larson to end the game.
Top-seeded Indiana will face Ohio State on Friday night, with the winner advancing to Saturday’s championship game. The fourth-seeded Gophers face Illinois at noon Friday, with the loser eliminated and the winner advancing to face Nebraska one hour later.
“It’s not impossible,” Anderson, noting that his team won two Big Ten losers’ bracket games in one day in 2011. “Alec Crawford’s been doing a great job for us, and he’s ready to [start against Illinois]. We’ve got some bullets left out there.”
The Gophers (31-21) need to win this double-elimination tournament to get into the NCAA tourney with the Big Ten’s automatic bid.
Indiana entered the tournament ranked 14th in the latest RPI rankings, and other Big Ten teams weren’t far behind, including Illinois (30th), Michigan State (35th), Nebraska (42nd) and Ohio State (62nd).
It’s been enough to make Big Ten coaches hopeful this could be the year they finally land more than three teams in the 64-team NCAA tournament. There’s talk Indiana could earn a top-eight seed, which would make it eligible to host a super regional.
The Hoosiers not only led the Big Ten in almost every offensive category this season, they also led the conference with a 2.54 ERA.
“They have talent,” Anderson said. “There’s a reason why you win 40 games. It doesn’t happen by accident.”
Ohio State 3, Nebraska 2: The Cornhuskers tied it in the top of the ninth on an RBI single by Bryan Peters in the other winners’ bracket game. It was a rare blown save for Ohio State closer Trace Dempsey, who has a 1.05 ERA, but the Buckeyes came right back and won in the bottom of the ninth on a bases-loaded walk by freshman Troy Kuhn.
Illinois 3, Michigan 2: Thomas Lindauer had two hits and scored two runs as the Fighting Illini eliminated Michigan in the losers’ bracket. The key inning was the first, when the Wolverines loaded the bases with no outs, only to see Illinois righthander John Kravetz escape the jam unscathed.