IU ends nine-game winning streak in 2-1, 10-inning loss to Gophers

WHAT HAPPENED: Brad Hartong nearly made a spectacular diving play on a fly ball to the left-field corner by Minnesota shortstop Connor Schaefbauer but couldn’t grab it, allowing Minnesota center fielder Dan Motl to score the go-ahead run in the Golden Gophers-2-1 win over Indiana in front of 1,994 at Bart Kaufman Field on Thursday night.

The Hoosiers  fell to 36-13 overall, 19-3 in the Big Ten, snapping a nine-game winning streak. It was a first time this season they lost the first game of a conference series, and the first time since March 14 at Long Beach State that they lost the first game of a weekend series. The Golden Gophers improved to 27-20, 13-9.

The game was largely a pitcher’s duel between Indiana ace Joey DeNato and Minnesota’s Alec Crawford. Minnesota scored in the third on another RBI double by Schaefbauer, but Indiana matched it with an RBI groundout by catcher Kyle Schwarber in the bottom of the  inning. Indiana put runners on first and second in the bottom of the ninth, but designated hitter Scott Donley failed to get a bunt down and eventually struck out. Third baseman Dustin DeMuth then grounded into a 6-4-3 double play to end the threat. Minnesota scored the next inning when Motl singled off reliever Scott Effross with two out, then Schaefbauer’s double popped off the palm of the diving Hartong’s glove.

WHO MADE IT HAPPEN: Minnesota’s Crawford was extremely efficient on the mound, needing just 90 pitches to cruise through eight innings. He allowed just three hits against a potent Indiana lineup, walked just one batter and struck out three. The Hoosiers loaded the bases in the third before Schwarber’s RBI groundout, but just one other Indiana baserunner outside of that inning reached second base against Crawford. He threw 59 of his 90 pitches for strikes and got 15 of his 24 outs via groundout. Just one of the Hoosiers three hits against him got into the outfield cleanly, and just four flyouts reached the outfield. He registered five 1-2-3 innings, faced the minimum in six innings and only faced more than four hitters in the third.

Schaefbauer was 3-for-4 and drove in both runs. Motl was 2-for-4 and scored both.

DeNato was not as brutally efficient as Crawford, and ran into some control trouble with five walks. Still, he got through nine innings with just one run, scattering five hits and striking out seven batters. He actually got more efficient in the later innings, needing a total of 24 pitches to get through the sixth, seventh and eighth after needing 28 to get into and out of a  bases loaded jam in the fifth. He threw 115 pitches, but 70 of those went for strikes.

WHY DID IT HAPPEN: Crawford kept the ball low with both fastballs and excellent off-speed and breaking pitches. The Hoosiers swung early in counts and usually made solid contact, but also tattooed the ball right at Minnesota fielders. Of the 28 Indiana hitters Crawford faced, 21 saw four or fewer pitches and 13 saw two or fewer.

IU coach Tracy Smith will be criticized for two decisions in the latter innings. In the ninth with runners on first and second and none out, he called for Donley to try to bunt, which didn’t work out. Donley fouled off two bunt attempts to run the count to 0-2, then struck out on the third pitch he saw, check swinging at a high fastball. The strategy for bunting Donley is obvious. With the game tied 1-1 and runners on first and second, Smith thought the best move was to get the winning run to third  with one out so that a sacrifice fly would be enough to win the game. The decision can easily be criticized in hindsight, considering that Donley doesn’t bunt often, and of course because it didn’t work.

In the 10th inning, Smith brought his son Casey on to pinch-hit with two outs and the tying run on second, despite the fact that the younger Smith hasn’t played since March 26 because of reactive arthritis that he thought would end his career. Smith has said he was trying to give Casey an opportunity to earn a postseason roster spot by showing he could be a valuable pinch-hitter. It makes sense considering that the younger Smith hit .309 with five home runs and 34 RBI a year ago, but it was a tough spot to throw him back into the fire after such an extensive layoff. The elder Smith said it was not a sentimental move, and that he thought it was the right move to attempt to win the game there. Smith pinch-hit for center fielder Tim O’Conner, a .181 hitter coming into the game who was 0-for-2 on the night.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN: The Hoosiers have to wait at least another day to clinch the Big Ten title outright. Nebraska and Illinois, who came into the weekend tied for second in the Big Ten, three games behind the Hoosiers, are playing each other in the season finale. The Cornhuskers beat Illinois in the first game, and are now down by two games to Indiana with two to play.

The Hoosiers’ push for a national seed lost at least some steam. This certainly doesn’t knock them out of contention or even out of a spot, as they were generally considered safely in the top eight going into the weekend. Still, it would not be in their best interests to allow one loss to turn into two, because the Golden Gophers are rated No. 110 in the RPI and home losses are much more painful than road losses in the RPI calculation. The Hoosiers were No. 3 in the RPI coming into the game, but that will not be the same come morning.