OMAHA, NE- Not that long ago, a Purdue Boilermakers run to the championship game of the Big Ten tournament seemed far-fetched, to say nothing of their seemingly remote chances to finish second in a very competitive edition of the conference.
You can pick a couple of moments over the course of the season that suggested that it just wouldn’t be in the cards. There was their sweep at the hands of Saint Louis on the back end of their Spring Break trip that began with a 15-1 drubbing against the Billikens. More recently, there was the weather-shortened two-game sweep they suffered at home against Minnesota in mid-April, when they were out-scored 40-15.
The latter was certainly a flash point for the team.
“Our first steps on defense during the Minnesota series were as bad as they were all year,” Purdue head coach Mark Wasikowski said. “Our readiness, the way that the coaches prepared the team was our worst performance of the year. I take full responsibility. The guys were not ready to play up against Minnesota earlier in the year. It showed. Our first steps were absolutely atrocious. We did some things that were good enough to win games, but in terms of the effort or the things that we were putting in front of our student-athletes, we did a bad job of getting them prepared to win a baseball game or a series, and it showed. That all fell on our shoulders. It wasn’t necessarily the players.”
After the second loss to Minnesota, they fell to 15-15 and 4-4 in the Big Ten.
But then they caught fire.
With an 11-5 win over Illinois on Saturday afternoon at the Big Ten tournament, the Boilermakers have won 25 of their last 28 games. They finished second in the Big Ten at 17-6 and put themselves squarely in the discussion to earn an at-large bid come Selection Monday. And as a little dollop of icing on the cake, the win over Illinois moves them to the Big Ten tournament championship game, presenting them with a rematch with Minnesota.
“What really did change our season is that series against Minnesota,” catcher Nick Dalesandro said. “That kind of fired us up a little bit, kind of made us rethink and reevaluate what we wanted the season to be like. I think all the guys, they could agree, we all bought into what the coaches said, listened to everything that they’re coaching us up on. There’s a whole list of things that happened, but I think that’s really what turned our season around.”
There’s no doubting that the particular style of play that Wasikowski and his staff have brought to Purdue has played a big role in putting the program in position to get into a regional in just his second year on the job. Actually, come to think of it, just calling it a style of play doesn’t do it justice. It’s really the entire ethos of the program.
They take every extra base. They run out every play, just hoping it will be enough to force an error or the slightest bit of hesitation. They lay out for every ball they think they have a shot at. They run a lot. Sometimes, that’ll come back to bite you, and Purdue did get caught stealing three times by Illinois on Saturday, but more often than not this season, it’s paid dividends.
“The style we play is just playing aggressive,” Dalesandro said. “On the base paths, for me personally, I like to get the pitcher going a little bit. We don’t have to really change any way we play depending who we’re playing. Coach Waz (Wasikowski) always likes to preach that we’re not playing against the other team, we’re playing against the game. If we keep that mindset throughout the whole entire game, throughout the whole entire weekend, you’re going to win a lot of ballgames.”
It certainly helped win them one on Saturday, when they didn’t waste any time putting pressure on the Illini. Take the following series in the first inning as an example.
With one out in the frame, Dalesandro singled. He promptly stole second, and then advanced to third when the throw down got away. Then, Dalesandro really starting working. Each time Illinois starting pitcher Cyrillo Watson came set, he danced around and drew attention. At one point, Watson stepped off to chase Dalesandro back and to gather himself, but the Purdue catcher continued to dance and get extended secondary leads as each pitch was delivered. So when Watson uncorked a wild pitch that didn’t get that far from catcher David Craan, Dalesandro’s lead and constant motion allowed him to get a great jump and score easily to put his team up 1-0.
That’s precisely the type of run that doesn’t score with a different philosophy in place. Without Purdue’s foot constantly on the accelerator at all times, Dalesandro doesn’t steal second, which doesn’t force the bad throw, and then even if he does get to third base, a more conservative approach to the lead at third wouldn’t have allowed him to score on a ball that didn’t get all that far from the catcher.
But wait, there’s more.
In the fifth, after falling behind 4-1, they put up a five-spot, with runs coming home in a variety of ways. They took advantage of an error by the usually steady Illinois shortstop Ben Troike to score a pair. Then, with men on the corners, Dalesandro stole second (his team-leading 26th of the season), which became a huge play when Skyler Hunter followed with a ground ball to short that would have been a tailor-made double play ball if Dalesandro was still on first. In a piece of bad luck for Illinois, Purdue finished that play with everyone reaching because the throw from Troike ripped the webbing in first baseman Bren Spillane’s glove, which forced the ball out. Putting that bizarre turn of events aside, Dalesandro’s base running had once again made a difference. Even if Spillane’s glove remained intact and the out was recorded, Illinois would have only gotten the one out, and the rally would have still been on with a runner on third and only one out. Had that been a double-play ball, though, the bases would have been empty with two outs.
Throughout the game, they also scored a handful of runs on sac flies, showing off an ability to put the ball in play in those important situations when they had a runner on third and less than two outs.
The approach isn’t limited to offense, either.
In the seventh inning, Purdue had a relatively comfortable 9-5 lead. The bullpen trio of Trent Johnson, Bo Hofstra, and Dalton Parker had done a nice job of slowing down the Illinois offense after a three-run outburst in the first inning, and the Boilermakers had a ton of momentum offensively. In other words, it was exactly the type of scenario where you wouldn’t be blamed for playing a bit more conservatively and pulling up on a ball that you might try to make a play on in a tighter game. Purdue isn’t a team that got here by pulling up, though, so when the Illini’s Michael Massey lined a ball into the left-center gap with two outs, center fielder Skyler Hunter raced to the spot and laid out parallel to the ground to rob Massey of extra bases.
“For me, at least, I take huge pride in my defense and not letting balls drop in the outfield,” Hunter said. “I feel like I can get to any ball that’s hit in the air. Waz is always yelling at me to go into the cages when I’m trying to do a double defense (practice) and I’m just trying to stay out there and make diving catches because that’s really fun. I think our defense is really showing up, and it doesn’t matter what the score is or who we’re playing, we want to make that play.”
Purdue is simply doing a lot of little things on the margins, and when you add all of those little things up, it makes a huge difference. Sure, they’ve had some luck along the way, like the Spillane glove incident, and some of their success is simply because they’re a talented bunch, but there’s no doubt that their style of play is having an effect. They push the envelope in all facets of the game, and that’s difficult for the opposition to handle sometimes.
On Sunday, it will help make for a fun championship game. On one side, you’ll have the undisputed best team in the Big Ten this season, Minnesota. On the other, in Purdue, you’ll have the team that has been perhaps the most impressive team in the field this week when you consider their ability to impose their will on the opponent.
Perhaps it will be the game where Purdue’s redline approach to baseball comes back to bite them and a veteran Minnesota team is able to turn their aggressive approach into overaggressiveness, but if it works as it has all week, it might become the proof of concept that their style could serve them well moving into regionals beginning next week.