Indiana pitching Slegers in first elimination game

OMAHA, Neb. — For all the talk of Indiana being the “Cinderella story,” of this year’s College World Series, the Hoosiers have not at any point in this postseason been in true survive-and-advance mode.

Until now.

Indiana (49-15) won the Bloomington Regional in three games and the Tallahassee Super Regional in two, so they still had a loss to spare in each of those. The Hoosiers needed to win two of three from Ohio State on the regular season’s final weekend to clinch the Big Ten regular season title outright and they needed to take a winner-take-all game against Nebraska in the Big Ten Tournament, but regardless of those outcomes, they knew they’d be playing in the NCAA Tournament.

But now thanks to Monday night’s 5-4 loss to Mississippi State, the Hoosiers face their first elimination game in the College World Series at 8 p.m. today at TD Ameritrade Park against Oregon State (51-12), the No. 3 overall seed in the tournament. The winner of that game gets Mississippi State again, and getting to the best-of-three championship series for either IU or Oregon State means beating Mississippi State on Friday and Saturday. The Bulldogs only need one win in those two games to advance.

It’s the closest thing the Hoosiers have felt to desperation all season, but IU coach Tracy Smith said he still feels confident.

“I think it’s kind of that tournament mentality anyway,” Smith said. “It’s almost like a high school state tournament. Win or you go home. You’ve just gotta play good baseball the rest of the way. Our season comes down to every game now, but I like the way our guys play with our backs against the wall and that’s the way it should be. We just try to live to fight another game. That’s going to be our mentality moving forward.”

The Hoosiers still seemed mostly loose on Tuesday when rain pushed them indoors at Creighton’s practice facility for batting practice. The only difference was that they were clean shaven. Smith has long had a no facial hair policy on the team, but this year’s team convinced him to allow “stubs for the dub,” meaning they could go without shaving as long as they were winning and had to shave as soon as they lost.

Minus the beards, mustaches, goatees, and general shagginess, they were still lively, especially at the end of practice when Smith pitted the starters against the substitutes in a competition for who could most often hit the L-screen protecting assistant coaches and batting practice pitchers Ty Neal and Roger Rodeheaver.

They were still peeved about the way Monday night’s game went, especially the 14 strikeouts against Mississippi State pitchers and the 10 men left on base, including six in scoring position.

“(Our mentality) is fine,” junior catcher Kyle Schwarber said. “It’s the College World Series. It’s all or nothing. We’re out here to prove something and we’re not satisfied right now. I feel like we’re all worried about getting tomorrow’s game. We’re just gonna play our game. We’re not too worried about that loss because we didn’t play our best baseball. We’re ready to show what our best baseball is tomorrow.”

To do that, they will be using arguably their best pitcher. Smith saved 6-foot-10 right-hander Aaron Slegers in large part because the first two teams the Hoosiers faced had a significant number of left-handers in the lineup. Oregon State is a little more right-hand dominant, though there are three lefties in the lineup.

Slegers, the Big Ten Pitcher of the Year this season, boasts a 9-1 record with a 2.13 ERA. He is coming off two shaky starts — on in the Bloomington Regional and one in Tallahassee – in which he didn’t make it out of the fifth inning and gave up a combined seven runs. He think he can shake that off, though, and so does his coach.

“I need to throw strikes early,” said Slegers, a fifth-round pick the draft by the Minnesota Twins. “Florida State I was walking guys and that’s not my game plan. I need to get back in the zone and compete. It’s big to pitch for our season to continue. It’s a big motivation and competitive factor for me.”

Said Smith: “He needs to relax and pitch with something to prove. I think that’s when he’s at his best is when he’s not in cruise control. He should want something. I hate saying it, but the poor starts happened all these accolades after the draft, all of those things. It needs to be, ‘I’m going to go out and pitch to prove that I am one of the best pitchers if not the best pitcher in the Big Ten.”

He won’t have an easy task and he will assuredly be facing an opposing pitcher who doesn’t give him much margin for error. The Beavers have five players hitting .300 or better in the starting lineup, led by sophomore left fielder Michael Conforto (.335, 11 HR, 47 RBI) who is one of the top prospects in next year’s draft.

The pitching staff has the second best ERA in Division I at 2.29. The Hoosiers will most likely see left-hander Matt Boyd, a third-team All-American and first-team All-Pac 12 pick with a 10-4 record and 2.18 ERA. Boyd was the sixth-round pick of the Toronto Blue Jays.

“They’ve been pretty consistent all year,” Smith said. “The way I look at it, though, you’d much rather be facing them than sitting at home reading about it or watching on TV. … We know we’re going to have to play our ‘A’ game to beat them but I just think it’s awesome you have a chance to do that and continue your season.”