OMAHA, NE- The saying goes that any time you go to a baseball game, you might see something you’ve never seen before.
It’s safe to say that many of those in attendance at TD Ameritrade Park on Thursday night, including this writer, had that experience with a sequence in the ninth inning of the winner’s bracket game between Michigan and Purdue.
It started off innocuously enough, as Michigan reliever Will Tribucher walked Purdue outfielder Milo Beam with one out and the game tied 4-4, but then the pitch went to the backstop on ball four. Seeing it get by the catcher, Beam took off on a sprint down to first base. Then Michigan catcher Harrison Salter struggled to gather the ball and get into a position to throw, which allowed Beam to get to second at the behest of first base coach Greg Goff, who was feverishly gesturing for him to take second base.
That’s where you figure that play would end, as Salter was able to find and collect the ball as Beam slid into second. But then Purdue head coach Mark Wasikowski, who doubles as the team’s third base coach, started to wave Beam to third. Why? Because in trying to help Salter find the ball at the backstop, third baseman Brock Keener had drifted in all the way to the first base line, effectively vacating the bag. Unable to get anyone over to cover in time, Beam stood up at third easily.
That might seem like a fluky play, but it’s more indicative of a style of play that Purdue has purposefully developed that puts an emphasis of being aggressive and forcing the defense to make a play. That much is clear, even, or perhaps particularly, to opposing coaches.
“Credit to Purdue,” said Michigan head coach Erik Bakich. “They have a style, they have an identity. They’re very aggressive, they put pressure on teams, they put pressure on us. They were able to score some runs because of it.”
He continued, “That was a smart decision by them to go on the passed ball. Most teams don’t do that. Most teams don’t even attempt to take second base on the walk where the ball kicks away from the catcher, so they got that break there because they made that break. It’s an aggressive team.”
With Beam standing at third base and one out, Michigan elected to walk the next two hitters to load the bases and set up a force at home, but it was all for naught, as Evan Warden stepped up and bounced a ball right back up the middle, bringing home Beam with the winning run in a 5-4 Purdue victory.
“I like my odds against against making them make a play,” Warden said. “I didn’t want to put it in anyone else’s hands. Whether it was a ball or strike, if I could get my barrel on it, I was swinging. I wanted to make them prove themselves and make a play in that situation.”
Warden is a player that seems to embody a lot of what the Purdue program is about under Wasikowski. On the field, he’s a classic scrapper who prides himself on doing things like getting on base any way he can (he was hit by a pitch 30 times in 2017) and making every play on defense, even if it’s detrimental to his health. In the series against the Wolverines over the last weekend of the regular season, Warden got in front of a ball that was ticketed for the corner and what would have been extra bases. only to have the ball come up on him and hit him in the mouth. As he plays this week in Omaha, the aftermath of that blow can still be seen in a healing wound below his lip.
In the interview room, he’s also been very vocal about how the team feels disrespected for not being picked higher in the preseason and for not having any players on the All-Big first or second team after the team finished second in the league. He mentioned it on Wednesday and reiterated it Thursday.
“I think we’re still underdogs and we’ve kind of been shafted in a way by everybody,” Warden said. “We know what we’re capable of and we’re really confident in ourselves, and we’re just trying to prove it each time. I’m sure we were going into this game and people were expecting us to lose, and we were pretty confident that we were going to win.”
It’s important to take a step back and think about how big this win is for the Boilermakers. They were already probably in good shape with their win over Ohio State on Wednesday, but with the win on Thursday, they’re a lock for a spot in a regional when the field is announced on Monday, with an RPI that has moved inside the top 30. It will be the first postseason appearance since the program won the Big Ten in 2012 and only the third all-time.
That’s quite an accomplishment in year two for Wasikowski and his staff. Two years ago, the year before he arrived, Purdue won just ten games on the season, and it took winning three out of four in a season-ending non-conference series against Cal State Northridge to get to ten wins. The next year, Purdue got into the Big Ten tournament, to the surprise of many, and now they’re going to be in a regional.
“We talk about a national championship every single day,” Wasikowski said. “That’s a really hard discussion to have when you’re taking a program over that, the year before we got here, was 2-22 in the Big Ten Conference and had ten wins overall…That was one reason why I took the job, because the administration made it very clear that we weren’t just going to participate on a baseball field, and graduate our players, and see if we can hang with somebody in the league. I wasn’t interested in moving my wife and children across the country to participate. If we weren’t going to talk about Omaha and have a chance to win a national championship at Purdue, I wouldn’t be sitting in front of you.”
Clearly, and perhaps quicker than anyone anticipated, Purdue is doing much more than just participating. They’re competing at the top of the conference, with a 2-0 start in this tournament, they’re in the mix to win a tournament title, and they’re a clear regional team even if they don’t win it all, thanks in large part to an approach to the game that allows them to make their own breaks, as they did on Thursday evening.