TERRE HAUTE —
Perhaps the most unnecessary pursuit for a Wabash Valley sports fan during the now-completed weekend was watching the first few innings of nonconference college baseball between Indiana State and visiting Nebraska-Omaha.
But after winning a pair of one-run games in walkoff fashion, the Sycamores carried their flair for the dramatic to ridiculous extremes Sunday and paid for it, falling to the Mavericks 7-4 in 12 innings at Bob Warn Field.
Going into the bottom of the eighth, Sunday’s game was pretty much a continuation of the early action in ISU’s 2-1 win Friday and its 3-2 decision on Saturday. The visitors tapped harmless singles everywhere, only to be thwarted in every occasion but one by ISU pitchers — and by a spectacular double play created by third baseman Koby Kraemer — and seemed to be ripe for the taking if ISU hitters could ever come through.
And in the bottom of the eighth, apparently one frame early, they did — briefly. Kraemer walked, Owen Conway was hit by a pitch, Jordan Pearson laid down an expert sacrifice bunt to put both runners in scoring position and Rob Ort — coming off the bench for just the second time this season — laced a two-run pinch-hit double to the right-center gap.
Although the Sycamores failed to pad that lead when Jon Hedges grounded into a double play to end the inning with the bases loaded, it appeared a Sunday win would have been the least dramatic of the three in the series — and it should have been.
Reggie Hochstedler, who had pitched out of a mild jam in the top of the eighth, gave up a leadoff single to Brady Hohl, but dangerous Colby McCord promptly grounded into a double play. Hochstedler then struck out Caleb Palensky. Game over, right?
Wrong. The third strike had fallen out of the glove of catcher Jeremy Lucas, and plate umpire Tim Farwig apparently hadn’t noticed. When Palensky broke for first, Farwig impeded Lucas’s path to the ball, and the throw to first was late by an eyelash. “[Farwig] kicked [the ball] twice,” ISU coach Rick Heller said afterward.
Palensky got in scoring position on a wild pitch, but that still didn’t seem to be a problem when Mark Waldron skied a popup for another apparently sure third out — except that Tyler Wampler and Pearson, who had turned the snappy double play seconds earlier, both lost the ball in the gray sky and it fell for a game-tying single. To make matters much worse, Alex Mortensen followed with a two-run homer.
“Two out, nobody on,” Heller muttered after the game. “I’ve been around baseball a long time, but you still see things you never have before.”
Ryan Walterhouse and Kyle Burnam opened the bottom of the ninth with walks, but Kraemer’s bunt was fielded by pitcher Derek Landis and thrown to third for a force play. The throw arrived late in the opinion of most of the people in the park, but Walterhouse was called out. That setback didn’t seem to deter the ISU ninth-inning magic, however, because Conway — making just his third start of the season — doubled off the left-field fence to tie the game.
“You can’t try to do too much in that situation,” Conway said later. “I was just trying for a hit up the middle to get it to the next guy behind me.”
One pitch later Conway was 90 feet from being the winning run when Landis fell off the mound for a balk, but then Pearson and Ort struck out to send the game to extra innings.
After that inning and a half of spectacular ebb and flow, the game was almost anticlimactic the rest of the way. ISU didn’t get another hit — the Sycamores just had seven for the game to 22 for the Mavericks — and UNO got three runs in the top of the 12th. McCord, after catching the first 11 innings and contributing an RBI double in the 12th, got the save, walking two batters in the bottom of the inning but striking out three.
“It was a struggle swinging the bat all weekend long,” Heller said afterward. “We were unable to get the run in when we had the opportunity [in the ninth] … and we got seven hits, and how many did we strand? [ISU left 18 on, thanks to 13 walks and three hit batters, even with the disparity in hits]. Nobody got a two-out hit.”
ISU pitching was tough in the clutch for the first 11 innings; Tyler Pazik had a particularly impressive two-batter stint when UNO threatened to widen its lead in the top of the seventh.
“Our pitching staff did a good job,” Conway noted, “but it was one of those weekends when it was tough to find a hit. It would have been nice to string a few [hits] together and not let [the Mavericks] hang around. But we’ve got a lot of fight in us. We’ll bounce back.”
“Give credit to the Mavericks,” Heller added. “They have nothing to play for, they’ve been on the road all year [four home games out of 44 so far] … there’s something to be learned from their effort.”
Unfortunately, the numbers don’t indicate how well the Mavericks played, only how they’d fared earlier in the season.
“A low-RPI loss [UNO came in 277th] at home will hurt you [in chances for an at-large NCAA tournament bid],” Heller pointed out. “If [ISU getting in] is a tossup, this is definitely a loss [the tournament committee] will look at.”