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BLOOMINGTON - Suddenly Indiana's baseball strength is a weakness.
Or is it?
Just as suddenly, what seemed a NCAA regional championship lock is gone.
Welcome to one-and-done postseason pressure.
“We have to keep moving forward,” IU first baseman Sam Travis said, “and bounce back.”
The top-seeded Hoosiers (44-14) will face third-seeded Stanford (33-24) late this afternoon in a winner-take-all showdown. At stake is a regional title and a berth in this weekend's super regional.
Sunday night's 10-7 loss to Stanford cost IU its first shot at a regional title, but not its final one.
“We've got our destiny in our hands,” coach Tracy Smith said. “We look forward to playing.”
Indiana began the night with the nation's No. 3 earned run average pitching staff, and was 39-0 when leading after seven innings. It twice built three-run leads, and led by two with two outs in the eighth inning.
It wasn't enough.
“This is the first time all year we let a lead get away late,” Smith said. “It's unfortunate it happened now.
“I don't have to say too much to these guys. We're pretty even keeled. You won't see much head hanging when we lose.
“We'll shower, eat, sleep, and come ready to play. It's pretty simple.”
Stanford shredded a pitching staff that hadn't allowed more than four runs since April 13. The Cardinal scored three runs in the eighth and ninth innings to snap Indiana's eight-game winning streak.
“That's baseball,” Travis said. “It will happen. We've done that to plenty of teams in the years that I've been here. Our pitching has been doing it all year. Sometimes they get hit. We've got to pick them up.”
Was Sunday an IU pitching aberration or a sign of what's coming again? Are the Hoosiers tough enough to bounce back from blowing what appeared to be a sure thing?
Why not, catcher Kyle Schwarber said, in so many words.
“We had some missed opportunities on the mound and at the plate,” he said. “It happens. It's a fickle game. You never know what will happen. You live in the moment and we'll take the result.
“We'll all bounce back. We'll be ready. We're confident. We're playing good ball. We had a slip up. We hit the ball solid. We had quality at bats. We're competing. We'll play for our tournament lives.”
IU had an apparent lock on the victory with a two-run lead in the eighth inning. Then reliever Luke Harrison faltered by allowing two singles. In came reliever Jake Kelzer, who had delivered the previous night in a similar situation. He hadn't given up a run since March 26.
This time he gave up a three-run home run to the first batter he faced, pinch hitter Wayne Taylor.
That put the Hoosiers behind 7-6, their first deficit of the regional.
“Jake hadn't given up a run in a long time,” Smith said. “I would (use him) again.”
Taylor had been the starting catcher in Stanford's earlier 12-4 victory over Youngstown State. He was rested for most of Sunday night until coach Mark Marquess saw the right opportunity against the hard-throwing Kelzer.
“He's very dangerous,” Marquess said of Taylor. “He has tremendous power to all fields. We were going to use him if the matchup presented itself.
“He had the big hit of the game. That turned the game around. It was a huge hit off a good pitcher.”
Stanford added three runs in the ninth to go ahead 10-6. IU had a chance by opening the bottom of the ninth with three straight walks, but could only manage one run.
Indiana would still seem to have the advantage. It has played one fewer regional game than Stanford, and has its No. 3 starter rested and ready in Brian Korte (3-0, 2.11 ERA), plus Sullivan Stadler (2-1, 2.70 ERA), and just about everybody else.
“You're at your tournament life,” Smith said, “so we'll take a head count and see who can give us an out or an inning. We're in pretty good shape.”
Stanford got its second shot at Indiana (it lost 4-2 to the Hoosiers on Saturday night) after routing Youngstown State. Against IU it started Logan James, who was 3-3 with a 4.13 earned run average. The Hoosiers roughed him up with four hits and three runs in the first inning.
He was replaced in the second inning by top reliever AJ Vanegas, who mixed 97-mph fastballs with 81-mph off-speed pitches. Vanegas lasted 80 pitches, until the eighth inning, in his longest outing of the season. By the time he departed, the Cardinal had that 7-6 lead.
“We told him he would go as far as he could. If we used him, it would probably be one time. He got tired at the end. He gave us everything he had.”
As it turned out, that was enough.
“Stanford battled hard," Smith said. "It was a good job by them.”