LEXINGTON – Peter Serruto’s seventh inning at-bat was almost over before it began.
Facing Kentucky ace Zack Lee, Indiana’s lineup struggled with the three pitch mix the right-hander was offering. Outside of a leadoff solo home run on the night’s first pitch from Phillip Glasser, the Hoosiers struggled to place traffic on the basepaths – let alone bring them around to score.
Kentucky didn’t fix what wasn’t broken – Wildcat head coach Nick Mingione knew his starter was throwing a great game – and continued to ride Lee’s stuff inning after inning. So when Indiana finally began to threaten with a double from Josh Pyne and Hunter Jessee taking a ball off his foot, Mingione trusted his guy to escape the inning.
Freshman second baseman Tyler Cerny then stepped to the plate and lifted a fly ball to right, with Pyne primed to tag. The third basemen would slide in safely – and just – bringing the fifth-year senior backstop Serruto to the plate.
As Kentucky Proud Park rose to its feet, Serruto swung at the first pitch and popped it up the right field foul line. Wildcat first baseman Hunter Gilliam gave chase, but the ball fell harmlessly just out of reach. Somewhere, there’s a saying about an at-bat when it’s given new life.
Serruto fell behind 0-2, but then battled the count full. At the postgame dais, Serruto says he was just trusting himself the entire at-bat, sticking to his approach and controlling his breathing.
Then, on Lee’s 101st pitch of the evening, Serruto got a fastball.
“That pitcher did a good job challenging me with sliders there,” Serruto said. “I just kept replaying that same thought in my head: Don’t come off the fastball. Don’t come off the fastball.
“(Indiana head coach Jeff) Mercer always says don’t play emotionally and just control that, and stick to my plan. Once I got that fastball, I knew what to do with that pitch.”
Suddenly, the largely outnumbered Indiana faithful in attendance were the only ones making noise. It was all Pyne and Jessee could do to contain their emotion as they circled the bags. The first base dugout sat empty, with every cream colored jersey pouring onto the turf to celebrate.
For Serruto, he’d just homered into the Indiana bullpen and, simultaneously, had a dream come true.
“That takes the cake,” Serruto said of the moment, the best of his career. “That was a pretty awesome moment. I think that’s number one for sure.”
It wasn’t just Serruto who had trust in himself, either. Glasser sat on deck, needing Serruto to extend the inning if he wanted one more shot at Lee for himself. He’s earned the trust of every single player in that Indiana dugout, being really the only option for the Hoosiers at the catcher position for nearly the entire season. No one was more qualified for that moment than Serruto.
Glasser knew he wouldn’t give away that opportunity for anything.
“When he was down two strikes and he took a really good pitch and the crowd’s crazy, but I saw him just looking at his bat and he was cool,” Glasser said. “I was like, ‘He’s going to get this done.’”
A smile then broke across Glasser’s face. “I don’t know about an oppo jack…”
Yet, Indiana’s night was not over. While the blast gave Indiana a 4-3 lead, the job wasn’t finished in protecting it. Indiana had been great on the mound themselves – they had got more than they asked for from Ryan Kraft in his first appearance back from injury and Craig Yoho had labored through the middle chunk of the game with his frisbee-like offspeed.
But Indiana was going to win or lose Saturday’s contest with freshman Connor Foley on the mound.
Foley had relieved Yoho in the seventh, thrown a shutdown eighth after Serruto’s solo shot and was returning to the mound to close it in the ninth. But after recording a quick out, Foley hit back-to-back batters.
Sensing the big moment could be getting to the young flamethrower, Glasser called an impromptu meeting at the mound amongst Foley and the rest of the infield.
“It was definitely a challenge,” Foley said of blocking out a resurgent Kentucky-favored crowd. A program record crowd was on hand, with six thousand-plus all seemingly coming down on the freshman.
In between innings, Serruto consistently reminded Foley to trust himself – “He throws 97. It’s pretty tough when you’re standing in the dugout to square that up.” Glasser had called two other meetings just like this one on the night, allowing the pitcher to reel himself in a bit.
“It just comes naturally, the adrenaline,” Foley said. “You just have to contain it and harness it and use it to your advantage.”
Glant had held off on the previous two, but went out to join them at the mound as the Indiana bullpen came to life. It was nothing more than a decoy.
“I sent a couple of guys down to make them think we might do something else,” Mercer said postgame. “He was going to be the guy. He’s tough as nails.”
The Wildcats still made it interesting. Devin Burkes’ fly ball to the warning track sent Morgan Colopy careening off the wall to make the play, and Emilien Pitre’s foul ball was inches from being the go-ahead home run Kentucky had been clamoring for.
“It’s a game of inches,” Mingione said. “That’s how it’s supposed to be when two really good teams match up.”
Pitre popped out to Glasser in short left on the game’s final pitch.
“He’s earned the right to be trusted,” Mercer said of Foley.
Indiana is now off to their first 2-0 start in an NCAA Regional since 2014. In the driver’s seat of the four-game pod, the Hoosiers need just one more victory to clinch a Super Regional appearance – somewhere they haven’t been since the 2013 season when the Hoosiers were one of the eight teams in Omaha at the College World Series.
Indiana (2-0) will play the winner of Sunday afternoon’s elimination game between No. 12 Kentucky and West Virginia in the NCAA Regional championship. First pitch is scheduled for 6 p.m. eastern.