Lloyd’s blast sends IU to 7-6 walk-off win over Minnesota

As Indiana coach Jeff Mercer turned to leave his postgame media scrum, he stopped in the doorway to the Hoosiers’ clubhouse at Bart Kaufman Field and hollered over his shoulder.

“Matt Lloyd is the baddest man alive!” Mercer called out.

The way Saturday’s game ended, Mercer’s affection for his senior was well placed.

With two outs, a full count, runners on first and second and the Hoosiers trailing by two in the bottom of the ninth, Lloyd stared down a letter-high fastball from Minnesota’s Brett Schulze and hammered it over the right field wall for a walk-off, three-run homer that sent IU to a 7-6 win over the Gophers.

“No better feeling than that,” Lloyd deadpanned.

And for Indiana (29-14, 10-4), there could be no better ending to a game where it was thoroughly outplayed for the bulk of the afternoon. IU had only two hits until the seventh inning, Hoosier hitters stuck out 15 times, while going only 2-for-13 with runners on base.

But with the Hoosiers’ penchant for long, loud, momentum-stealing home runs, Indiana always seems to have a puncher’s chance. On Saturday, the long ball bailed out IU once again.

With his Big Ten-leading 14th home run at the end of Saturday’s contest, Lloyd delivered the come-from-behind knockout blow and turned Sunday’s 12 p.m. series finale into a rubber match for the weekend win. Andrew Saalfrank (5-1, 2.40) will start against Minnesota’s Joshua Culliver (2-3, 4.42). The game will air live on ESPNU.

“I just think it’s kind of a little bit of a wake-up call,” Lloyd said. “Yesterday and today, our at-bats weren’t what they should be, in our approaches. The last couple of innings, we got back to it and I think we can carry it into tomorrow.”

Minnesota (18-21, 8-6) built a 6-1 lead over the middle innings, with RBI doubles by Riley Smith, Eduardo Estrada and Eli Wilson helping to create the early advantage against IU starter Tanner Gordon.

Gordon threw 95 pitches over five innings, allowing four runs on eight hits, while striking out seven and walking none. His immediate replacement, Braden Scott, was tagged for two runs in the sixth after an error at third and a single by Easton Bertrand.

At that point, it felt like Indiana was on its way to its first series loss since a sweep at Tennessee in late February. IU entered the day with six straight losses to Minnesota, and Saturday’s game was trending toward another one.

There were too many empty, unproductive at-bats against Minnesota’s Sam Thoreson, who came into the start with a 6.61 ERA. After Drew Ashley led off the game — and later scored on a 4-6-3 double play — IU didn’t manage another hit until Scotty Bradley doubled in the sixth. But even that two-out, extra-base knock went to waste when Cole Barr struck out to end the inning.

“We really were as uncompetitive and unfocused and rattled as I’ve ever seen us,” Mercer said. “It was just absolutely unacceptable.”

The comeback began in the seventh, when Ryan Fineman sent a two-run homer, his sixth of the year, to the right of the flag pole in left-center. For Fineman, it was a measure of redemption after he started the series 1-for-7 with four strikeouts.

On the mound, meanwhile, the bullpen trio of Grant Sloan, Alex Franklin and Tommy Sommer held the Gophers scoreless over the final 3 1/3 innings, while striking out eight to bridge the gap to the bottom of the ninth.

That’s when Grant Richardson struck first with a solo home run to lead off the inning. After strikeouts by Fineman and Justin Walker put IU on the ropes, Drew Ashley and Matt Gorski both worked walks on a combined nine pitches to set the table for Lloyd.

By then, it was clear to Lloyd that Schulze was struggling to locate his breaking ball. That allowed the IU senior slugger to sit fastball, and by the time Schulze delivered the seventh pitch of the at-bat, Lloyd was ready for it.

The ball jumped off of Lloyd’s bat, landing on the grassy incline well beyond the right field fence. As Lloyd rounded the bases, his teammates poured out of their third base dugout to greet him at the plate, where Lloyd tossed his helmet and stomped on the dish for the day’s final run.

On an afternoon where Indiana struggled in so many facets, the long ball saved the Hoosiers once again.

“Obviously, we have several guys that can change the game on one swing of the bat,” Mercer said, “and we did that. Matt Lloyd, he’s the baddest man alive.”