BLOOMINGTON -- Indiana second baseman Chad Clark faced NCAA Regional redemption opportunity without hesitation.
In a moment, he would celebrate a walk-off home run in a huge home plate scrum with his Hoosier teammates. They would shout words the fog of victory would forever obscure.
“I don't even know what they said,” Clark said. “I forgot. It was all positive. It was like, I love you.”
Or, as Coach Tracy Smith added with a smile, “We're a really close team.”
Closeness comes easily for the top-seeded Hoosiers ( 44-14), who brace for tonight's second-round matchup with second-seed Austin Peay (46-13), whose 16-game winning streak makes it America's hottest team.
But before all that Friday night, here's what Clark knew. He had botched a ground ball to help give Valparaiso (31-27) two extra ninth inning runs and a 4-1 lead. He had not hit a home run all season and was going against a dominant reliever who had, before this inning, allowed just one run in 2013.
The fact Valparaiso's Karch Kowalczyk had given up three straight hits, including two straight doubles, for two runs provided hope. So did a record crowd of 3,045 at Bart Kaufman Field cheering from its feet.
Valparaiso led 4-3 with one out in the bottom of the ninth. IU's Chris Sujka was on second as a pinch runner for Casey Smith, who had just doubled. A steady breeze blew U.S and state of Indiana flags stiff toward left field. As a right-handed hitter, Clark could use the wind to his advantage if he could pull a pitch.
Kowalczyk's fastball hit 93 mph. Pulling it was unlikely. But his slider dipped to close to 80 mph. That was a pitch the 5-7, 170-pound Clark, who had hit three home runs last year, could drive. And after his ninth inning error, he couldn't wait to drive something.
“I had a little motivation going into the bottom of the ninth,” he said. “I was pretty mad, but I used that to my advantage.”
Clark swung and missed on Kowalczyk's first pitch, a high inside fastball. That was a mistake given Clark was looking to swing only at a slider.
“It was a reaction swing,” Clark said.
Kowalczyk's second pitch was a slider that hung over the plate. Clark's drove it 360 feet over the left-field wall into the IU bullpen for a walk-off home run. The Hoosiers had their 5-4 victory, just their second ever in NCAA tourney play and their first since 1996. Clark had a moment like never before. The fact that it came in front of his parents and his grandmother, who had flown in from California to watch, made it even more special.
“That's never happened to me in my life,” he said. “I've never had a walk-off hit. It feels great. It feels good to make up for my mistakes on the field.”
Clark's previous lack of power didn't hurt his confidence. He said he knew it was gone as soon as the pitch left Kowalczyk's hand.
“I knew I was going to smoke the ball right when it came out of his hand. I was sitting on it. When I hit it I knew it, too.”
Here's what Valparaiso coach Tracy Woodson knew.
“We controlled the game for eight innings. We put it in the hands of our closer. He's been lights out all year and hung a couple of breaking balls. You can't make mistakes like that. You can't leave the breaking ball up.”
Clark's heroics didn't surprise Smith.
“He's a tough guy. There will be days in practice where he will do things that are the most bonehead things you've seen in your life. But you can't stay mad at him because you say something to him and he looks at you and says, 'That's my fault, Coach. I won't do it again.'
“In the world we live in now, people do things and make excuses. That's not him. That was a huge, huge hit.”
Valparaiso pitcher Cole Webb controlled the Hoosiers by mixing 76 mph breaking balls with 85 mph fastballs. Against the Big Ten's best hitting team, he gave up one run on five hits in seven innings.
“That kid was on,” Smith said. “Our hitters were coming back saying, I can't see the ball. He did a nice job of keeping us in check.”
Big Ten pitcher of the year Aaron Slegers couldn't match that. He gave up six hits and two runs (only one earned) in four innings before being replaced by freshman Scott Effross, who lasted until the ninth inning.
“Slegers has been around the zone all season, attacking the zone,” Smith said. “That wasn't him. He was pitching tentatively, but we've got quality guys to come in behind him. He'll live to fight another day.”
IU's pre-game talk about playing for Big Ten vindication buckled early against pressure and nerves. Slegers gave up three hits and a run in the first inning. He mixed a walk, a passed ball and a hit to give up another run in the second.
Meanwhile, the Hoosiers messed up a chance at a first-inning run with bad base running -- first baseman Sam Travis tried to go from first to third on designated hitter Scott Donley's infield single and got picked off for the third out. They went 1-2-3 in the second inning and third innings. A third-inning threat ended with Dustin DeMuth taking a third strike.
IU finally broke the scoring drought in the bottom of the seventh on Clark's RBI-single. That followed left fielder Casey Smith's double. A double play ended the inning with a 2-1 score.
The Hoosiers had two innings to rally. As it turned out, they needed just an inning and a third.
“We got the kinks out with this game,” Clark said. “I think we'll be ready to go.”
Austin Peay advanced during its rain-delayed regional opener with a 4-3 victory over Florida (29-29). The Governors overcame a 3-1 deficit on designated hitter Michael Davis' three-run home run in the bottom of the eighth inning for their 16th straight victory.