BLOOMINGTON – Somehow, someway things tend to gravitate toward the biggest arena at Indiana University.
Even baseball isn’t immune-though it’s worth pointing out one of their own brought it up.
Among many of the questions asked to the Hoosiers’ baseball team before their first appearance in the College World Series was how they were able to string together five consecutive victories. Many gravitate toward’s the teams first win in their “Road To Omaha”, including infielder Casey Smith.
Without prompt, he made a comparison to the school’s more famous basketball program.
“I compare it to the Watford shot,” said the Indiana junior of Chad Clark’s walk-off homer against Valparaiso at Bark Kaufman Field on May 31st in the NCAA Regional opener.
Of course by Watford Smith is talking about Hoosiers’ forward Christian Watford and his three-pointer at the buzzer against No. 1 Kentucky in 2011-a play which gave Indiana its biggest victory of the Tom Crean era and put the Hoosiers back among the elite basketball programs in the country.
“Watford’s shot for the basketball got them turned around and I think his home run got us turned around for this postseason,” said Smith-and there’s plenty of evidence for that.
Since Clark’s two-run homer gave Indiana the 5-4 victory over the Crusaders, the Hoosiers have won four consecutive games. They swept Austin Peay in the final two games in Bloomington to advance to the Super Regional at Florida State where they bested the seventh-ranked Seminoles in a two-game sweep.
During that stretch the Hoosiers never scored less than six runs and won their quartet of games by an average of five runs.
“I’ve been saying it all week, the walk-off home run probably propelled us into the College World Series,” admitted Indiana manager Tracy Smith. “Because things weren’t looking good at that time. But that’s how this game is, it’s a crazy game.”
Perhaps that’s why the game had such sticking power with the team-especially with the change of emotions with the contest’s protagonist. Before Clark hit the two-run homer it looked as if the second baseman would be the goat in what would have been seen as an upset loss to the Horizon League Champion Crusaders. With Indiana trailing 2-1 in the top of the ninth with the bases loaded, Valparaiso’s John Loeffler sent a ground ball toward Clark who charged at it but let it go past him.
While running back to get it, two runs came home to score as the Crusaders went up 4-1 going into the bottom half of the ninth.
“We were not playing our best baseball,” said Indiana senior outfield Justin Cureton-and the Hoosiers would have their hands full trying to come back.
Crusaders closer Karch Kowalczyk had allowed just one run in 25 inning all season long and was called on to finish off Indiana on their homefield. Despite what had just happened, Clark remained confident that the team would have something to say.
“We’ve come back in a lot of ballgames like that, which were down by six or four or whatever it is,” said Clark. “We’ll always come back no matter what.”
Redemption could await Clark if that happened since he was due up fifth in the inning. The Hoosiers made that opportunity a reality with a furious ninth inning rally started by a Michael Basil single which was followed by a double from Dustin DeMuth which got one run home. DeMuth then scored when Smith himself doubled to left field, bringing up Clark as the game-winning run.
“He recklessly moves forward,” said Smith of Clark’s attitude-and that paid off in what was an unusual way for him in 2013.
After going down in the count 0-1, Clark took a Kowalczyk pitch into the left field bullpen for his first home run of the season. The two-run shot sent the sellout crowd into pandemonium as Clark rounded the bases and met his teammates at home plate having turned a 4-3 deficit into a 5-4 victory-making up the two runs his error allowed just minutes before.
“I’ve never had that change of emotion,” said Clark of the walk-off homer following the error. “I knew we were down and I knew what we had to do.”
The fact that Clark was able to do it so soon and the team was able to score triple the runs which Kowalczyk had allowed all year in a single inning provided a boost for the team that lives on 15 days later, when they’ll play their first ever College World Series game against Louisville at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha.
“That was unbelievable to start the tournament that way,” said Basil of the inning. “We strung a couple of hits together and got the walk-off home run and after that everything’s been going right for us.”
Just like another major moment for the team who plays about 500 yards away.