Wright State catcher Sean Murphy (Wright State Athletics)

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Dispatches From Champaign: May 31

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — When Wright State pitcher Jack Van Horn celebrated his 23rd birthday on Saturday, the Raiders hadn’t won a regional game since 1993, when he was 1 year old.

On Sunday, Van Horn, a redshirt junior with only two previous starts in his collegiate career, was told with less than an hour’s notice that he’d have to go out there and get the Raiders’ second regional win in an afternoon.

“Yeah, it was right after Notre Dame lost,” Van Horn said. “Like five minutes after Notre Dame lost.”

Van Horn responded by throwing eight of the unlikeliest innings of shutout baseball you’ll ever see, holding scoreless the selfsame Notre Dame offense that had dropped 13 runs on his confreres two days earlier, to send Wright State through to Monday’s regional final with a 4-0 win. It was, after Jesse Scholtens’ eight-inning performance in the Raiders’ 8-3 victory over Ohio (discussed below), the second season-saving start in as many games.

Van Horn struck out six, walked two and allowed five hits on 106 pitches in his eight innings of work on a cold, damp night, clocking in by far the longest outing of his collegiate career.

It almost didn’t happen — after a five-pitch leadoff walk to Cavan Biggio, Van Horn received a rare mound visit from head coach Greg Lovelady. Lovelady says he usually doesn’t make mound visits, but was concerned that Van Horn had reaggravated an existing groin injury, and failing that, that he needed to refocus mentally.

“I’m the one that really teaches the mental game and stresses the mental game,” Lovelady said. “So I felt like, hey, if this is not an injury or if it is an injury, I want to go out and make sure he’s okay and look in his eye and make sure if it’s something wrong, then I need to get somebody else in there.”

Van Horn responded immediately, and got all the way to the eighth without encountering serious trouble.

“As a lefthander, he liked to come in with a cutter and he wanted you to roll over on him and hit a ground ball out to the right side,” Biggio said.

“He was going away with a lot of his stuff,” Notre Dame third baseman Kyle Fiala said. “He had a little cut on his fastball that he was going away with. We just had to go to the plate looking at the opposite field. The kid did an awesome job. He commanded his stuff well and kept us off balance and he did a good job.”

Some of Van Horn’s success came as the result of pitching into a defense that shifted aggressively, but it’s surprising that he didn’t have his best stuff.

“Usually I have a five‑pitch mix and nothing was working,” Van Horn said, “except for (the cutter) … That’s really the only pitch that I had confidence in, though. Just kept sticking to it and they couldn’t touch it.”

Lovelady said his plan was to have Van Horn get through the Notre Dame lineup twice — three, maybe four innings — before handing the game off to his top two relievers, E.J. Trapino and Andrew Elliott. But Van Horn breezed through the middle innings, and meanwhile, his offense was building a lead: Mitch Roman scored in the second, and again in the fourth, and leadoff man Sean Murphy started a two-run fifth with a single, before he and freshman first baseman Gabe Snyder came around to score on Roman’s two-out single.

So as a one-run lead ballooned to two, then four, Trapino stayed on the shelf entirely, and Elliott only came in for a nine-pitch, three-out save.

“I didn’t want to give up back‑to‑back doubles and tie the game and have my closers warming up in the bullpen,” Lovelady said. “The more runs we scored obviously, the more leeway (Van Horn) got and able to do it. But he proved that it didn’t matter what the score was; he was going to go out and finish as much as he could.”

The two wins on Sunday leave the Raiders in position for — if they can pull it off — what would be a legendary upset of host Illinois to advance to a super regional.

The 36-year-old Lovelady, in his second year as head coach after nine more as a Raider assistant, was overcome with emotion after his team punched its ticket to Monday’s final.

“To see this group set out an a mission to do something special to elevate the tradition and to finally see the reward through the process of 11 years has been unbelievable to be a part of,” Lovelady said. “And I’m so proud of this group for everything that they have done; to come out today and do what they did and have to play a day/night doubleheader, and win both games against two unbelievable opponents, is really, really memorable.”

Illinois 3, Notre Dame 0

Illinois RHP Drasen Johnson (Cary Frye/Illinois Athletics)Illinois RHP Drasen Johnson (Cary Frye/Illinois Athletics)

In a day characterized by outrageous performances by starting pitchers, Illinois’ Drasen Johnson’s was the best, if also the least surprising. The senior righthander overcame some early trouble — five baserunners in his first two innings, but no runs — to twirl a 106-pitch, six-strikeout, five-hit complete-game shutout to put Illinois in the regional championship game and send Notre Dame into the losers’ bracket.

Johnson’s complete-game shutout, on the heels of Kevin Duchene’s 114-pitch, three-run complete game on Friday night, means Illinois head coach Dan Hartleb hasn’t had to use a relief pitcher since the tournament started. Johnson is also the second different Illinois pitcher to throw a complete-game shutout in the past four games, after John Kravetz shut out Michigan State on 92 pitches in the conference tournament.

It took Johnson 31 pitches to get his first six outs, and a seven-pitch battle with Lane Richards in the ninth stretched his ninth-inning pitch count to 17, but once Johnson settled down, he was untouchable. In the intervening six innings, Johnson threw only 58 pitches. In the last seven innings of the game, Johnson only threw 12 balls.

“If you look at his starts, he cares so much, he’s so amped up, excited to go out and pitch each and every time, that at times, he throws through his break,” Hartleb said. “He’s a sinkerball, changeup-type pitcher. And when sometimes he’s a little too strong because the adrenaline is going early, he elevates some pitches … and gets himself in a little bit of a jam.”

“I thought Johnson really changed as a guy once he got those runs on the board,” Notre Dame head coach Mik Aoki said. “I thought he just was out there. The body language picked up, the tempo picked up. I felt like he got stronger. I thought he was pitching with a lot more confidence after they put that three‑spot on the board. The kid is 10‑3 now with a sub-2 ERA. The kid is a good pitcher and did a really good job against us.”

Johnson’s shutout serves as the latest advertisement for the veteran, strike zone-pounding Illini pitching staff, which has been one of the best in the country this year under pitching coach Drew Dickinson. Duchene and Tyler Jay have gotten all the headlines, but as Duchene’s slowed down and Jay has remained unused in the bullpen, Johnson and Kravetz have more than filled the void.

Notre Dame’s Ryan Smoyer also pitched well, striking out only two in 7 2/3 innings, but pitching into his defense and confining Illinois’ scoring to one inning, a three-run third inning sparked by Adam Walton, who hit an RBI single, then went first-to-third on Ryan Nagle’s single, then scored on a sacrifice fly — both bang-bang plays.

“Baserunning has been very, very good for us,” Hartleb said. “And any time the defense is throwing to the wrong base, at times we’ve been able to move the back runner‑up and score multiple runs that way.”

Together, Smoyer, Johnson and Notre Dame reliever Evy Ruibal held 17 of the 18 half-innings in the game scoreless, turning the scoreboard into a transcription of the lyrics to the chorus of Zombie Nation’s “Kernkraft 400.”

“I felt good today,” Smoyer said. “I had four pitches working. In the bullpen, I felt good.  Got out there, everything felt good. And then, you know, we were just putting zeros up on the board. They get a couple timely hits, every couple guys come up with some key hits through the infield that hopefully we can put a glove on. They get by a guy, there’s nothing you can do about it. Credit to them, they just made timely hits when they needed them.”

Smoyer praised Illinois’ lineup, which drew four walks and sprinkled 10 hits up and down the lineup more or less evenly, saving his highest praise (and the line of the night) for first baseman David Kerian, who went 2-for-3 with a double.

“You come up with four, five, six — you hope to get those three outs before you have to face Kerian,” Smoyer said. “If you can get Kerian up with nobody on, that helps, limit the damage to what he can do. If he hits a double, guy on second base and there’s not anything that hurt you.”

Illinois’ win — and Johnson’s performance in particular — sets up a near-impossible set of hurdles for Wright State. The Illini will have Kravetz and, if necessary, Rob McDonnell — both of whom made starts in the Big Ten tournament — on full rest, as well as literally every arm in the bullpen, not least among them Tyler Jay, probably the best player in the regional, who hasn’t thrown a pitch in anger in eight days.

Contrast that to Wright State, who, thanks to Van Horn and Scholtens, heads into Monday with a better-rested bullpen than expected. But Lovelady’s already gone with two spot starters — Van Horn and Luke Mamer — in three games, and will have to cobble together 18 innings’ worth of winning baseball, while Hartleb can likely continue not to have to manage much at all.

“Couldn’t have drawn it up any better,” Hartleb said. “And again, our guys, this isn’t anything new for us. We have gone into a lot of Game 3s in series in this same situation, because of our starting pitching, because of the aggressiveness that we have, the way that we have taken care of business from an offensive standpoint.”

Wright State 8, Ohio 3 

Jesse Scholtens leaned into the microphone, icepack wedged under his partially unbuttoned jersey, smiling the contented smile you get to wear when you talk a big game and then back it up.

Scholtens came to Wright State this season by way of Arizona and Diablo Valley Community College, then became the Radiers’ ace by way of a season-ending elbow injury to Robby Sexton. And when he took the mound on Saturday, the 6-foot-4 junior with the Michael Biehn-in-Tombstone mustache was faced with the classic sports ultimatum: Win or go home.

Scholtens took a body blow from Ohio in the form of a two-run first inning, and after the Raiders jumped all over Jake Rudnicki for five runs in the top of the second, Scholtens pitched a scoreless bottom half of the frame and found himself leaving the mound as rain delayed the start of the third inning for a little more than 22 hours.

Ordinarily, a 40-pitch outing would constitute enough of an effort to prevent a starter from simply picking up where he left off the next day, but Scholtens wouldn’t sit.

“Before the game, I told Parker, our pitching coach — I said, ‘Hey, in high school, I used to throw bullpens one day and then the next day go out and throw seven innings, so it sounds like a plan for today,’ ” Scholtens said.

Scholtens navigated a few hard-hit balls early to throw six scoreless innings on Sunday, finishing with eight innings–the last seven of them scoreless–on 116 pitches: 40 on Saturday, 76 on Sunday.

“I was surprised (to see him out there),” Ohio head coach Rob Smith said. “That’s a testament to that kid’s tenacity to come back and be able to compete like that. He did a really, really good job. We were barrelling balls up and he didn’t waver. He continued to attack the zone. I have to tip my cap to the kid. That was a great effort by him.”

Lovelady was a little more cautious about the plan for Scholtens — the 76 pitches he threw constituted the absolute high end of what he was comfortable with, he said, and with the stadium’s radar gun malfunctioning, he was on edge as Scholtens gave up line drive after line drive in the middle innings.

“I was definitely antsy after probably the second inning on, and really, really nervous for Jesse and his health. It was difficult, I guess, but he did a great job. I’m really proud of him.”

Despite a few nervous moments early, Scholtens simply wouldn’t let Lovelady take him out. Not only is this true in the metaphorical sense, but Scholtens literally refused to give up the ball at one point.

“I went to go take him out of the game in the middle of the inning and he wouldn’t shake my hand,” Lovelady said. “He’s like, ‘No, I’m going back out there.’ ”

By the numbers, Scholtens’ effort wasn’t out of line with what Duchene did on Friday when he held Ohio to three runs in a 114-pitch complete game. Duchene said pitching with a big lead helped, and Scholtens got similar support from his teammates.

Mark Fowler went 3-for-5 with a home run, a double and a tumbling catch in center field to rob Garrett Black of a hit in the seventh inning, snuffing out a rally that could’ve brought Ohio back into the game. Ryan Fucci went 2-for-4 with his second home run of the regional, and John Brodner went 1-for-3 with two outstanding fourth-inning catches, the second of which involved the Raider third baseman leaping straight up into the air, twisting and coming down with what should’ve been a double for Kyle Dean.

The 8-3 win buoyed the spirits of Wright State, and Scholtens’ intransigence saved a Raider bullpen that would need to win three games in 30 hours or otherwise part ways until fall practice. But the flip side was the second and final disappointing loss of the weekend for the Ohio Bobcats, who won 25 games combined in Smith’s first two years as head coach, only to win 36 games and the MAC tournament this year.

“To see a team that was pretty much doubted by everybody within our league — and rightfully so, for a lot of reasons … I’m not surprised that they were able to accomplish this,” Smith said. “I knew this was coming about midway through the fall; I could really see something different and they certainly fulfilled that. I couldn’t be more proud of what they have accomplished. I’ve been a part of some good teams, but I’m not sure I’ve been a part of a team that’s as special as this as far as what they had to go through to get to the point where they were at.”

Coming back from the rain delay, Smith stayed with senior Connor Sitz, who’d thrown three pitches in relief on Saturday, and whose last appearance before that was a no-hitter against Bowling Green in the MAC tournament. Barring the kind of heroic performance Scholtens put on, Ohio could easily have fought back into the game, and to make sure Wright State didn’t turn that 5-2 lead into something insurmountable, Smith called on relief ace Logan Cozart to hold back the flood.

Cozart is the reigning MAC pitcher of the year, a converted third baseman who moved to the mound to help make up for a lack of pitchers. He finished the season 7-1 with a 1.52 ERA and 13 saves, and for 4 2/3 innings, the burly, 6-foot-2 senior righthander pitched around five hits and two walks to make possible a comeback that never came. Cozart’s career at Ohio predates Smith’s, and his transition to the mound is somewhat exemplary of Smith’s three-year rehabilitation of Ohio’s pitching staff, making him as close as there is to the platonic ideal of a 2015 Ohio Bobcat. In the only NCAA tournament appearance of his career, Cozart pitched well, but it didn’t matter.

“It was my last go-around and I wanted it pretty bad,” Cozart said. “I was talking to Coach, and I wanted to finish the game. It’s disappointing, but I’m proud of the team for the effort they gave. That’s baseball. Looking back, we’ll probably be happy with what we did this season, but right now, it’s a little disappointing.”

That dichotomy frankly makes it pointless to ask players and coaches about a season that’s positive in a larger sense, mere minutes after the loss that ended it. Any macro-level pride — even if the players and coaches are intellectually aware of it in the moment — is trumped by the proximate disappointment of the loss and the sadness of the season having ended.

With one out in the top of the ninth and a runner on first, Cozart sat on 66 pitches, and Smith came out to get his senior relief ace one last time. That sadness shone through as Smith, on the edge of tears, described what the moment was like.

“Taking him out? Tough,” Smith said. “He’s meant a lot to our program, I’ll say that … He deserved the standing ovation he got. Yeah, he’s a warrior, man. He was a big reason that team transformed. Not only did he just transform himself–obviously, if you look at what he’s done as an individual player, the turnaround that he’s had, really, from a third baseman who became a converted pitcher out of necessity because we didn’t have any arms our first year. He didn’t question it–he just did it. He was a successful hitter, and we didn’t really have him hit a whole lot. He never questioned it. And then he made a commitment to make himself the best pitcher he can be.”

“And with that,” Smith continued. “I think he really set the tone for our team in a lot of ways, and he’s just a massive reason this thing’s flipped. I have a lot of respect for that kid, no doubt.”

Eight hours later, Notre Dame head coach Mik Aoki faced the same situation.

“I’ve always marveled at how quickly a college baseball season comes to an end,” Aoki said. “You’re going, you’re going, you’re going, you’re going, you’re playing, and bam, all of a sudden, you’re not playing anymore. And you’re not going to wake up and see this group of kids again. You’re not going to wake up and think about, okay, what do we need to do next to get this ready for the next thing. It’s incredible how quickly you have to transition.

“But, you know, I think that you’re proud and right now, you’re hurting. You know, it’s like I told the kids, those guys, for those seniors, this is heartbreaking for them. For a lot of those guys, it’s the last highly competitive baseball they are going to play and that’s a heartbreaking thing.

“And they are leaving a pretty special place in Notre Dame and they are leaving some really special bonds with some kids on their team. It’s a heartbreaking thing. But like we talk about working with pitch to pitch, we get by it. We soldier on. These kids are going to look back at the season 10 years from now and they’re not going to worry about the strikeout. They’re not going to worry about the home run that they hit or any of those things.

“They’re going to look back on all the great bonds that they made, the friendships that they made; all the stupid things I may have said to them during the course of the year; all of the stupid things they did together during the course of the year. And a lot of that is what makes this game so special, and then doing it at a collegiate level so special.”

That’s how complicated the emotions are in a college regional, ranging from Lovelady’s tears of joy to Smith’s tearful goodbye to a senior who had been such an important part of his team and his life, and occupying every spot on the emotional continuum that comes between those two extremes.

That’s why the highlight videos that overwhelmingly feature happy kids in the uniforms of brand-name schools do a tremendous disservice to the full nature of college baseball. For every dogpile, there are at least three–and usually more–press conferences in which a shellshocked or heartbroken coach has to describe how much he’s going to miss his seniors, or in which a shellshocked or heartbroken 21-year-old tries to explain how it all went so wrong so quickly.

And often as not, the average college baseball fan couldn’t pick those coaches or players — who care more about these games than you or I care about anything — out of a lineup. Or find the schools they represent on a map. But these four-seeds that go two-and-out, and the bubble teams that are forgotten within a week, are the base of the pyramid upon which that dogpile is started. In a sport where failing seven times out of ten gets you to the Hall of Fame, and in which 63 teams that celebrate on Selection Monday go home empty-handed, that seems appropriate.

“This isn’t for the faint of heart,” Aoki said. “I’ll tell you that.”

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