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Purdue Baseball and the NCAA Tournament

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Boilermaker baseball is on the cusp of extremely rare territory.

Purdue baseball

Purdue started playing baseball back in 1888.

The NCAA started having a baseball tournament in 1947.

Like in basketball, the first year was an 8-team single elimination tournament won by California over Yale. As a fun footnote, some guy named George H.W. Bush played for that Yale team.

Through all 71 years of the NCAA Tournament, Purdue has been eligible to participate, but unlike in basketball, we have virtually no history in it. Since the early 70s baseball has been dominated by Southern and Western schools that can play year round. For a long time they could start playing games in mid-January, while schools like Purdue would have to go on the road entirely until mid-March at best. In 2008 the NCAA introduced the uniform start date of the third Friday in February as a compromise. Schools were now limited to a 56-game regular season (before some Southern and Western teams were able to schedule more than 80), and the uniform start date gave Northern schools like us a chance for more home games.

The progress has been slow. It is still big when a northern school makes it to the College World Series, and the last to actually play for the title was Eastern Michigan in 1976. The Big Ten has had only one team in the last 35 years make it to Omaha, and that was Indiana in 2013.

As for Purdue, we have not been great. This year will mark only our third appearance ever in the field. The 1987 team went 36-24-1 and made it. The 2012 team roared into the tournament at 44-12 as the Big Ten champion and hosted a regional. That’s it though. We have had a few other close calls. The 1986 team won a then program record 37 games. In 2000 Purdue started with a win over No. 1 Rice and went 19-7 in the conference as runner-up, but and 0-2 showing in the Big Ten Tournament likely knocked them out. In 2011 Purdue went an impressive 37-20, but probably missed the NCAAs because of a 14-10 Big Ten record.

This year’s team has exceeded all expectations, however. Remember: Just two seasons ago we needed to win three of our last four to reach double digits in wins for the whole season. that 10-44 year with a 2-22 Big Ten mark was rough. It led to the retirement of Doug Schreiber and Morgan Burke, in really his final act as AD, brought in Mark Wasikowski.

The turnaround in just two years has been incredible. We were struggling to merely be competitive against the likes of IPFW two seasons ago. Now we’re about to go where only two other Purdue baseball teams have gone. Since we have today off in the Big Ten Tournament, let’s look back on our short NCAA history.

May 21, 1987

Texas A&M 13, Purdue 3

While ESPN provide coverage of the entire tournament these days, back in 1987 you were lucky to get the CWS championship game on TV. Only 48 teams made the field back then, and they were placed in eight 6-team regionals. Since there were 16 fewer spots you can say that the 1987 team made quite an accomplishment just by making it.

The debut was brief. Purdue was placed in the Starkville, Mississippi regional and Texas A&M opened up an 8-0 lead on starter Pete Altenberger after just two innings. He entered the game with an 8-0 record, but the Aggies pounded him early. All told, Texas A&M got 13 runs on 17 hits and led 13-1 after six innings. They went on to be runner-up int he regional to Oklahoma State.

May 26, 1987

Western Carolina 8, Purdue 7

I am not sure why it took 5 days between games, but Purdue faced off with Western Carolina in the loser’s bracket and again fell behind early. Andy Swain gave up a first inning run and the Catamounts added one in the third, four in the fourth, and one in the fifth to go up 8-3. Purdue got four back in the sixth to make it 8-7, but bowed out of its first NCAA Tournament without ever having the lead in either game.

June 1, 2012

Purdue 7, Valparaiso 2

We waited 25 ears to return to the NCAAs. We had to host in Gary because Alexander Field wasn’t ready yet. Even then, we had to wait even longer as Kentucky and Kent State played a marathon 21 innings in game 1, the second longest game in NCAA Tournament history. After finally getting to start at 10:40pm local time Joe Haase wasted little time in earning his school record 11th win of the season. It took only 2 hours and 10 minutes for Purdue to beat the Crusaders. Haase struck out 7 and gave up 1 run on six hits. Cameron Perkins and Barrett Serrato each drove in two runs as Purdue scored two each in the third, sixth, and seventh to go with a single run in the fourth. The game may have gotten over just before 1am, but Purdue finally had an NCAA Tournament win.

June 2, 2012

Kent State 7, Purdue 3

Lance Breedlove, Purdue’s solid No. 2 starter, just didn’t have it. Purdue led 2-1 in the bottom of the second and easily got the first two outs, but the Golden Flashes loaded the bases with a pair of two out singles and a walk. Jimmy Rider then delivered a 3 RBI double and Kent State followed with two more hits to take an early 6-2 lead after two innings. Purdue’s bats never really got going. Ryan Bores scattered 9 hits during a complete game and the Boilers never got into Kent State’s worn bullpen from the 21 inning affair. Purdue left the bases loaded in the fourth, and this was even after an earlier double play in the inning. Kent State later not only won the regional, but went on to the College World Series and even eliminated No. 1 overall seed Florida there before bowing out.

June 3, 2012

Kentucky 6, Purdue 3

Arguably, Kentucky should have been at home hosting their own regional, but on Selection Monday the committee shockingly gave Miami a regional instead of the Wildcats. Kevin Plawecki had an RBI triple in the first and scored on a hit from Serrato to give Purdue a 2-0 lead it would hold through three innings. The wheels came off for Robert Ramer in the fourth, however. Thomas McCarthy started off the winning by reaching on a dropped fly ball to center field. The Wildcats followed with four hits to score four runs and take a 4-2 lead. They added insurance runs in the sixth and ninth and Purdue managed only a run in the eighth and left two on in the inning. Just like that, Purdue’s dream season was over less than 48 hours after taking control of its own regional with a convincing Friday win.

So what is in store for us next week? Well, the field of 64 will be announced on Monday at Noon on ESPNU. Even if Purdue loses twice tomorrow to today’s Illinois-Indiana winner to be eliminated we’re very likely going to be in the field. With an RPI of 28 Purdue might even be a two seed in one of the four-team regionals, meaning it would be favored in its first game on Friday. Since the host institutions almost always choose to play the prime time games int he first round we’re looking at a Friday afternoon game somewhere, as we’ll either be a 2 or a 3 seed.

Should Purdue win the Big Ten Tournament, especially if it beats high RPI teams in Indiana and Minnesota to do so, There is actually a small (probably less than 5%) chance it would host a regional at Alexander Field. We’ve already gained 12 RPI spots this week, but wins over Indiana and Minnesota for maximum bonus would push us into the top 25 when all is said and done. With schools like Jacksonville, Tennessee Tech, and Connecticut up there we might get a nod as a “Northern” host. I would say the chances are really, really small, but if we steamed into the tournament having won 22 of 24 games there is a chance. If Michigan can beat Ohio State today and take one from Minnesota tomorrow the Wolverines would also move into the top 50, giving Purdue four more top 50 wins. We’re currently 4-7 against the top 50, but additional wins over Indiana and Minnesota, plus Michigan finishing in the top 50, would suddenly make us 10-7 against that group. It is a wild scenario, but fun to think about.

Of course, another benefit of being a 2 seed in a regional is that it gives us a better chance of hosting a Super Regional at Alexander Field. We would have to win our regional (something we have never done) and the host of the regional we are paired with would have to lose, but as a 2 seed we would have a shot at hosting against a fellow 2 seed or worse.

If you looking at the potential of a nearby regional you want Louisville to win this weekend’s ACC Tournament. If the Cardinals do just that they may host next week, and Purdue could be placed there as their two seed. We can rule out one of the 16 host sites, at least. Minnesota is almost certainly a host, and we cannot be placed in a regional hosted by a team from our conference. Aside from Louisville the closest projected hosts are Arkansas, Georgia, or one of four regionals projected to be in the Carolinas (Clemson, East Carolina, North Carolina, and North Carolina State). The state of Florida (Florida, Florida State, and Stetson) is also expected to have three regionals.

So let’s enjoy this. We have a special team and unlike 2012, this feels like it is merely the beginning of something bigger as opposed to the culmination of years of buildup. Before the season started we were not even supposed to make the Big Ten Tournament. Now we’re talking about how far we can go in the NCAAs.

Great job, coach Waz.