Typically, when a baseball team has a catcher pitching while trailing by eight runs in the bottom the eighth inning, the prospect of winning has pretty much gone out of the window.
But when that situation involves IU’s potent offense and the Hoosiers facing rivals in the other dugout, well, this team has proven anything can happen -- and Tuesday night it did.
The Hoosiers (24-22) capped a wild finish against Kentucky (26-22) when a two-out, 10th inning double from senior Michael Earley plated two runs to give IU the 18-17 win.
“That just gives us confidence that we can win in any situation,” sophomore Alex Dickerson said . “We were down 16-8 with three innings to go, came back to tie it, lost the lead, and then won it. That just shows what this team has got in the tank.”
Dickerson’s brief summary was certainly right. After seven full frames, the Hoosiers looked especially out of it after watching Wildcat batters hammer three-straight home runs for four runs off of IU freshman Casey Smith. Senior catcher Dylan Swift relieved Smith in the top of the inning and managed to end the inning with no further damage as Kentucky led 16-8.
IU went scoreless in the bottom of inning and brought Swift back on for the top of the eighth -- mainly in an effort to keep other arms in IU’s bullpen fresh for this weekend’s critical conference series with Michigan State. Swift, though, pitched remarkably despite a fastball that doesn’t touch the speed range of IU’s starters and gave up just one hit and no runs in the eighth.
“I know they just put me in there to save arms for the weekend and throw strikes,” Swift said. “I know the percentages -- 70 percent of the time they’re going to get themselves out if I put it down the middle. I had great defense behind me. It was just one helluva day.”
Keeping Kentucky from scoring in an inning for the first time since the third seemed to be a source of ignition for the Hoosier bats in the bottom of the eighth. A Dickerson single started what would become a five run inning for the Hoosiers as Tyler Rogers tripled for two runs, Bryan Ritz singled to score Rogers and Ethan Wilson smacked a rocketing two-run home run to left field.
The score, now 16-13, wasn’t quite close enough for IU head coach Tracy Smith to bring on senior Chris Squires, as he opted instead to leave Swift -- making his fourth pitching appearance of 2010 -- on the mound. The strategy worked after Kentucky stranded a runner on third to end the top of the ninth inning with the top of IU’s batting order due up in the bottom half.
Freshman Micah Johnson earned a leadoff walk from Kentucky closer Matt Little before junior Jerrud Sabourin struck out. With one out, Dickerson -- a current co-Big Ten Player of the Week -- belted a 3-1 pitch to right field for a two-run home run, his 21st of the season that brought IU within a single run.
“I got to 3-0 and basically zoned in and said if I’m going to swing, I’m going to try to put this out,” Dickerson said, while sporting an ice bag applied to his face due to a celebration injury. “I figure that my batting average is the way it is because I’m hitting the ball hard.”
After Earley grounded into second out, sophomore Josh Lyon stepped to the plate and drove an 0-1 Little pitch over the center field fence, tying the game and sending it to extra innings as the sun began to set over the unlighted Sembower Field. The pair of ninth inning home runs were just the third and fourth given up by Kentucky’s Little in 2010 after now facing 133 batters.
Smith signaled Squires in from the bullpen for the top of the 10th and moved Swift back behind the plate. Squires began with a strike out of Kentucky’s Gunner Glad before issuing a walk to Lance Ray.
The next batter, pinch hitter Cory Farris, struck out but on strike three Ray bolted for second, and Swift’s throw arrived too late -- giving Kentucky a runner in scoring position. UK’s Keenan Wiley then dropped a Texas league pop-up just in front of a charging Dickerson in left and Ray scored when Dickerson’s throw to home was off line.
Now facing a 17-16 deficit, the Hoosiers needed a little more magic to get the win, getting some help with a leadoff single from Swift. With Swift still on first after two consecutive outs by Johnson and Sabourin, UK opted to intentionally walk Dickerson -- he represented to the winning run -- and face Earley instead. It was a decision that Earley, despite being the only starting Hoosier without a hit in the contest to that point, would jump on with the very first pitch.
Earley ripped a fly ball over the head of UK left fielder Chad Wright and off the wall, sending Swift and Dickerson to set off a wild Hoosier celebration at home plate.
“If we can give ourselves a chance on the mound, this team is going to score runs,” Smith said. “The competitive part of me is that I love the winning, but the coach part of me says (the pitching) needs to be better than that.”