As we head into 2013, we take one final look at 2012 through the lens of Big Ten baseball.
#10 on the list is fitting as it was a 10-spot that caught national attention for Purdue and Big Ten baseball.
After the calendar turned from February to March, from March to April, then April to May, it was pretty clear the Purdue Boilermakers had a special team. With a deep 1-9, a rotation that featured two of the Big Ten’s top starting pitchers and a bullpen that featured two of the conference’s top relievers, Purdue was a complete team and charging through its schedule with no evident weakness. Conference and regional programs would try holt the runaway train that was the Boilermakers, but as they entered May with a 34-7 record, the opposition often struggled.
The first weekend in May was one that fans of Purdue, supporters of Big Ten baseball and even skeptics had circled. With the addition of Nebraska to the Big Ten, the conference would now have 11 baseball programs. As a result of the odd number, bye weeks were sprinkled throughout the conference schedule. The quality of Purdue’s team was one the program had not been seen in a generation, and the bye week provided a grand opportunity for the Boilermakers. Head coach Doug Schreiber called upon former colleague John Savage, the two were on the same staffs at Arizona State, to have his UCLA Bruins fill Purdue’s bye week.
A trip to Los Angeles was on tap for Purdue, a three-game series May 5-6.
As Purdue landed in the City of Angels, the team was ranked No. 13 by Baseball America, UCLA No. 14. In the process of climbing the rankings, the Boilermakers were compiling a resume not only worthy of guaranteeing a bid to the NCAA Tournament, but one that would hold up in the discussion of regional hosts. The road series against the nationally-ranked team provided Purdue the opportunity to state its case, to show they indeed deserved to host a regional.
The first two games didn’t follow that script.
The mighty Purdue offense was held two one run, two hits in the series-opening 5-1 loss. Though Purdue pitchers would hold UCLA to four hits in the nightcap, Purdue stranded eight runners in a 3-2 defeat. Where Purdue was hoping a series win would all but wrap up its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1987, the Big Ten’s first regional hosting since 2008, Purdue went into the Sunday finale just hoping to salvage the series, to show they can stand next to a top-15 team.
The first eight innings continued Purdue’s nightmarish weekend.
The Bruins would strike for three runs in the bottom of the second inning and chase Purdue starter Connor Pokdul after three innings. When Purdue struck for three runs in the top of the fourth, UCLA responded with four runs against the conference’s top bullpen. The deficit would be halved with two runs in fifth, but in the sixth UCLA would stretch it back out to a four-run margin. A single run in the eighth made it 10-5 with Purdue three outs from returning to West Lafayette with a four-game losing streak, twice as long as any other losing streak Purdue would encounter all year.
Then it happened.
A strikeout, two outs left.
The bases were load, Purdue was down four and Purdue had life against as Savage turned to a new pitcher.
An Andrew Dixon single up the middle cut the deficit to three, and a Tyler Spillner fly to right field made it two, but it was a sacrifice fly meaning two outs were on the board.
If there was anything the first three months of the season taught us about Purdue, other than they were really good, it was they had a resiliency to them. Time and time again Purdue would battle back and win a game that seemed for the loss column. In the season’s first weekend a nine-run sixth propelled them to a win over Notre Dame. A seven-run sixth broke a 7-7 tie to Western Carolina in the second weekend. A seven-run seventh against Southern Miss saw Purdue rally from a 9-3 deficit.
One could never count out a team this team. And doesn’t it take a special team to break a 103-year drought?
So as our eyes were glued to Gametracker, as hearts pounded and hands sweated for the Bruins, Purdue was in a comfort zone.
Two outs, 10-8, two on.
Eric Charles singled with two strikes, 10-9.
Cameron Perkins, 2-2, infield single, game tied.
Sean McHugh, who was a defensive replacement for Kevin Plawecki –the player who would go on to be named Big Ten Player of the Year, your turn. A 3-2 single to left, Purdue ahead.
A Barrett Serrato two-strike RBI-single tacked on another run. An Angelo Cianfrocco single would add another.
With each batter, with each hit and each run, the disbelief piled. How were they doing this? Two more batters, two more hits and runs.
Purdue pounded out eight hits, drew four walks, scored 10 runs.
They did it again.
As Nick Wittgren worked his fourth inning, UCLA would counter with a run in the bottom of the ninth but no more would be on hand for the Bruins, Purdue left Jackie Robinson Stadium a 15-11 winner.
Many moments will be relived and many stories told time and time again of the 35-man roster dubbed the Dream Team. The 2012 Purdue season is one that will live on forever in the hearts and minds of its players, coaches, parents, boosters, administrators, everyone who played any role in allowing Purdue to accomplish what hadn’t over an entire century.
For those it may be tough to isolate one particular moment from a season of many memorable ones. But the ninth inning of the third game against UCLA will give fans outside of West Laffayette something to remember, that afternoon everything Purdue embodied was on display bright and center with an audience just for a team not soon to be forgotten.