Hoosiers fall to Redbirds in regional opener, 8-7

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Indiana’s pitchers yielded 18 hits, while its hitters struck out 18 times.

Any way you view it, the Hoosiers turned in a dud during Friday’s Louisville Regional opener.

The postseason slump that permeated through IU’s brief and winless trip to the Big Ten Tournament last week carried over to the second leg of the program’s postseason journey. No. 3 Illinois State teed off on IU starter Pauly Milto, while Hoosier hitters strung together a series of uncompetitive at-bats in an 8-7 loss to the Redbirds before an afternoon crowd of 1,227 at Jim Patterson Stadium.

Instead of creating the early traction needed in a regional scenario, No. 2 Indiana found itself pushed to the brink of elimination after only one game. Friday marked the third consecutive year that IU has lost its NCAA Tournament opener, making for a steep climb the rest of the weekend.

IU will play either No. 1 Louisville or No. 4 Illinois Chicago on Saturday at 11 a.m.

Now, with their season on the line, the Hoosiers have little room for error if they hope to keep their campaign alive.

“As a collective group, we need to pick it up because this season is on the line from every game out from this point,” first baseman Scotty Bradley said. “We need to get it going.”

Start with an IU lineup that struggled to solve Illinois State left-hander Brent Headrick, the Missouri Valley Conference Pitcher of the Year. Headrick’s success against the Hoosiers seemed to be born from equal parts his own doing and IU’s careless approach at the plate.

Indiana tallied only one hit — a two-run, first-inning homer by Elijah Dunham — through the first five frames against Headrick, who set a new career high with 14 strikeouts. The southpaw seized upon IU’s biggest offensive weakness, inducing a flurry of aimless whiffs from Hoosier hitters while providing a platform for the Redbirds’ lineup to take over.

As well as Headrick handled the moment, Indiana stumbled at its chance to continue through the winner’s bracket for the first time since 2015. IU didn’t put a single leadoff hitter on base, while getting outhit 18-7.

Consider it more of the same from Indiana’s feast-or-famine offense. In three postseason games spanning the league and NCAA tournaments, IU is hitting merely .175 (17-for-97) with two extra-base hits and 38 strikeouts.

“Lately, we haven’t been hitting that good,” Dunham said. “I think it fundamentally comes down to our players’ confidence. I feel like a lot of guys are not confident in the box right now. It just kind of looks like they’re giving up at-bats. It looks like they’re just trying not to strike out, which is not the mentality to have at the plate. Some of our teammates are just hitting like a bunch of babies and it’s really frustrating.”

Things didn’t unfold much better on the mound, where Milto struggled to keep his fastball away from the middle of the plate.

The last time Milto took the mound in an NCAA Regional, he twirled a four-hit shutout to keep Indiana alive in the 2018 postseason. Milto’s latest tournament appearance wasn’t nearly as dominant.

Illinois State put the leadoff man in each of the first four innings, tying the game in the top of the second on RBI singles by Aidan Huggins and Derek Parola. In the third, the Redbirds added two more to take the lead thanks to RBIs from the bottom of their order.

Not all of the 14 hits allowed by Milto were struck hard, though plenty of them were placed well enough to cause him damage. The right-hander was charged for seven runs over 5 1/3 innings, striking out three, walking none and throwing 96 total pitches.

“That’s probably the best fastball-hitting team we’ve played against all year,” IU coach Jeff Mercer said. “Them and Indiana State, and they play in the same conference. (When) pitches are over the plate, and the stuff’s not good enough, there’s very few, select guys that their stuff’s good enough to leave over the middle of the plate, elevated and not get touched up. They put balls in play and they made us pay. We didn’t help them either. The emotions of the moment overcame us.”

Indiana found itself in a 7-2 hole after six and a half innings, at which point the Hoosiers had only three hits. But in the seventh, Illinois State gave IU a little help.

With Headrick out of the game, the Redbirds’ bullpen struggled to pick up where the southpaw left off. IU sent 11 men to the plate in the bottom of seventh, plating five runs — all while collecting only three hits. Illinois State relievers walked four Hoosiers and hit another, forcing in runs and resetting the ballgame.

Dunham and Jeremy Houston both drove in runs on singles, Matt Lloyd and Bradley both worked bases-loaded walks and Ryan Fineman was plunked to force in the tying run.

But IU’s fortune ended there.

Parola finished with five hits for Illinois State, collecting his final knock of the day in the top of the eighth. After a leadoff single, Parola advanced to second on a groundout and came home for the eventual winning run on Joe Aeilts’ double to left field off IU reliever Connor Manous.

For an Indiana lineup struggling to create its own fortune, the final two innings ended with a whimper.

And fittingly, the afternoon ended with a strikeout.

“If we would’ve just stuck to our game plan that our coaches told us in the beginning,” Dunham said, “then I feel like we would’ve had a lot more success.”

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