Small ball, strong pitching lift IU to 5-2 win over Penn State

A sacrifice here, a stolen base there.

Small ball made the difference in Indiana’s rebound effort Saturday afternoon.

After struggling to string together hits against Penn State in a series-opening loss, IU’s attention to detail helped lift the Hoosiers to a 5-2 win over the Nittany Lions on Saturday afternoon at Bart Kaufman Field.

Indiana (28-19-2, 11-8-1) manufactured runs and received six strong innings on the mound from starter Pauly Milto to even the series ahead of Sunday’s rubber game at noon.

Although Penn State (16-33, 3-16) arrived in Bloomington stuck in the Big Ten’s cellar, the Lions have offered resistance to the Hoosiers’ climb up the RPI rankings across the first two games of the set. On Saturday, however, Indiana’s ability to turn little moments into something big made the difference.

“That’s what I just told the team,” IU coach Chris Lemonis said. “We’re playing a really good club. I know they had some bumps early in the year, but they’re playing good. It was just a good baseball game. Get a bunt down, get a hit, get a two-out hit, turn a double-play when you need it. I just thought it was a well-played game from both sides, and really both nights.”

Indiana finished with 11 hits, including two-hit performances from Alex Krupa, Tony Butler and Logan Sowers.

It took a few innings for IU to cash in after the Hoosiers put a runner on third base with two outs in both the second and third innings, but failed to bring them home.

That changed in the following frame, when Sowers’ sacrifice fly to right field plated Luke Miller for the game’s first run. After placing a beautiful, two-out bunt down the third base line, Matt Gorski stole second and later came around to score on Jake Matheny’s single through the right side to give IU a 2-0 lead.

“It’s huge,” Lemonis said of producing with two outs. “… Those are the ones that get you this time of year. When you’re playing pressure baseball, it’s nice to get those two-out hits. It lets everybody relax a little bit.”

In the fifth, Krupa padded IU’s lead with his fifth home run of the season, a solo shot to right field. And after Penn State scored its first run on a single by Conlin Hughes in the top of the seventh, some more small ball helped Indiana get a couple more in the bottom half.

A leadoff single by Jeremy Houston, followed by Krupa’s bunt single, put two on with zero outs. Both runners advanced on a sac bunt by Butler and eventually scored on a two-run single to left by Matt Lloyd.

Consider it extra insurance on an afternoon when Indiana received another excellent start from Milto.

The sophomore right-hander continues to offer the Hoosiers a steady arm in the weekend rotation since moving out of the bullpen in early April.

Across his six scoreless innings, Milto scattered six hits, walked three and struck out seven. He threw 61 of his 81 pitches for strikes and has not allowed a run during each of his past two starts.

“He was our player of the game, I guess you could say,” Lemonis said. “Just throwing six shutout innings and just making pitches (was what we needed).”

The win against Penn State came in Milto’s first Saturday start of the year after having worked his previous six starts in the Sunday slot.

His only trouble spot came in his final inning, when he issued three consecutive balls in a 1-2 count against PSU No. 6 hitter Ryan Sloniger. The walk to Sloniger loaded the bases with one out, but Milto induced a 6-4-3 double play ball to end the inning and escape unharmed.

Milto’s slider gave the Lions trouble all afternoon, and despite the three walks, he was consistently getting ahead of Penn State hitters throughout his outing.

“No one’s good down in the count,” Milto said. “It’s just something you work on.”

Reliever B.J. Sabol allowed two runs across the seventh and eighth innings, though only Hughes’ single was earned. A throwing error by Miller at third allowed the Lions to score their second run in the eighth.

Lloyd later worked a perfect ninth to earn his seventh save of the season.

Now, Indiana looks to Cal Krueger to supply the series win on Sunday’s Senior Day. It’s essentially a must-win game for the Hoosiers, who can’t afford to squander a home series at this point — not after Friday’s loss dropped them eight spots in the RPI to No. 31.

IU was still feeling that loss after Saturday’s win, when the team left the ballpark at No. 33 in the latest RPI.

It’ll be up to Krueger and company to help the Hoosiers avoid a stepper slide on Sunday.

“I’m hoping we get a good start from him,” Lemonis said.