IU, DeNato hold on for 5-2 win in Big Ten Tournament opener

WHAT HAPPENED: Joey DeNato shook off a couple of early fielding errors and struck out nine batters in eight innings to lead No. 1 seed Indiana to a 5-2 win over No. 8 seed Iowa in the Hoosiers’ first game at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Neb.

The Hoosiers advance to play the winner of Wednesday’s late game between No. 4 Minnesota and No. 5 Michigan.

Iowa took a 1-0 lead in the first. Center fielder Eric Toole singled and went to third when DeNato threw a pickoff attempt wide of the bag to allow Toole to go all the way to third. He scored on an RBI groundout by second baseman Jake Mangler. 

Indiana took the lead in the second thanks to an RBI single by shortstop Nick Ramos and an RBI double by second baseman Casey Rodrigue. Iowa tied the game 2-2 in the fourth on an RBI double by Dan Potempe after DeNato failed to field a bunt off the bat of Iowa shortstop Jake Yacinich, but Indiana scored two runs in the bottom half of the inning to take the lead for good. Center fielder Tim O’Conner doubled down the left field line for his first extra-base hit of the season, then scored on an RBI triple by Rodrigue. Rodrigue then scored on an RBI groundout by catcher Kyle Schwarber.

The Hoosiers got one more run in the fifth. Dustin DeMuth was hit by a pitch and went to second on a balk. A single by left fielder Brad Hartong sent him to third base. He scored on a grounder by right fielder Will Nolden, even though that turned into an unconventional double play when Nolden tried to advance to second on a throwing error.

DeNato cruised once he got the lead, holding the Hawkeyes scoreless after the fourth. Luke Harrison pitched the ninth to get the save.

WHO MADE IT HAPPEN: One of DeNato’s best qualities is that he can keep it together and actually pitch better when things go wrong. He did that on Wednesday. He finished with nine strikeouts against zero walks. He scattered seven hits, but allowed just one  baserunner past second after the fourth. Once he shook off his defensive miscues, he got outs by mixing speeds with his fastball, throwing his curve for strikes and using his slider as an out pitch, getting Iowa hitters and especially left-handers to chase it.

Rodrigue had just two hits in his previous 22 at-bats and was going through a hard-luck stretch, but he went 3-for-3 with two RBI and a walk and was a home run away from the cycle (however unlikely a home run in TD Ameritrade Park is). Shortstop Nick Ramos had a pair of hits, O’Conner’s double was critical, and Brad Hartong’s lone single was also important. It extended his hitting streak to 16 games and it put DeMuth in position to score on the groundout.

WHY DID IT HAPPEN: Iowa managed to keep the middle of the order from blowing up. First-team All-Big Ten picks Kyle Schwarber, Sam Travis, Scott Donley and Brad Hartong were a combined 4-for-17 with two runs scored and an RBI. Each of them made contributions, but the Hawkeyes would’ve accepted that scenario if it was presented to them before the game.

Four of the Hoosiers five RBI came from Rodrigue at the leadoff spot and the bottom three spots of the order, however. As Iowa coach Rick Heller pointed out, that makes an already relentless Indiana lineup even more exhausting to deal with.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN: Baseball America’s Aaron Fitt and Perfect Game’s Kendall Rogers said before the tournament that Indiana would be likely to earn a national seed as long as the Hoosiers didn’t go two-and-out at the Big Ten Tournament. Wednesday’s win assures that won’t happen. That’s not to suggest Indiana made itself a national seed lock, but it certainly helped the cause that the Hoosiers didn’t undergo a first-day upset.

Winning the first game was also critical for Indiana’s pitching plans for the tournament. The new eight-team format requires a team to win four games to win the tournament. and going through the loser’s bracket means it’s necessary to play at least five. That forces teams to make decisions on whether or not they will use their Wednesday starter on short rest or try to turn a reliever into a fifth starter. Tracy Smith made a point to say he will not try to use DeNato or any other pitcher on short rest because the Hoosiers will be in the NCAA Tournament. He’d like to be able to use his four starters — DeNato, Christian Morris, Brian Korte and Sullivan Stadler — and not have to make any other decisions on pitching. Wednesday’s win was the first step to keeping Smith from having to adjust the rotation.