LEXINGTON — March had returned for Indiana baseball. Only the run-rule wasn't active this Sunday to spare the Hoosiers as it was in the team's 12-2 loss in seven innings at the University of Kentucky on March 14. In that game, Indiana pitchers plunked six Wildcats.
Sunday's NCAA Tournament Regional Final at Kentucky Proud Park in theory could've been decided by the 10-run-rule. The Wildcats scored seven runs right before the seventh-inning stretch to lead 16-4, which included home runs by Hunter Gilliam and Ryan Waldschmidt.
Though Indiana scored two runs in the ninth to pull within 10 runs, the Hoosiers lost 16-6. Sunday’s boxscore mirrored that of when these teams met in March. Indiana hit six batters in seven innings then while plunking nine in Sunday’s complete nine-inning defeat.
Gilliam had an eerily-similar statline across the two meetings. In March, the redshirt senior hit the game’s only home run: a three-run to left-center. Gilliam went 3-for-4 with five runs batted in. On Sunday, Gilliam drove in five runs and again blasted a three-run homer to left-center.
Rather than one home run like in the 40-degree March contest, Indiana and Kentucky totaled six Sunday in the warm postseason weather. Hoosier sophomores Evan Goforth and Carter Mathison each hit solo home runs in the third and fourth innings, respectively.
Kentucky had tallied the other four, each with at least one runner on base. Two of the four were three-run home runs. When the Wildcats weren’t launching homers, they were getting hit nine times. Gilliam said postgame it only fired up Kentucky’s bench even more.
Kentucky had already blanked West Virginia University 10-0 in the noon elimination game. In prepping for the win-or-go-home matchup against Indiana later that night, Gilliam revealed Kentucky players willingingly stood in the way of pitches aimed at their legs in batting practice.
“We're turning into it, we’re gonna let it hit us,” Kentucky sophomore outfielder Nolan McCarthy said postgame. “That's a free base and why not take what they're gonna give us.”
Each of Kentucky’s home runs spread across the second, fourth and seventh innings consistently buried Indiana’s chances to chip away at the deficit. In Saturday’s winner’s bracket game between Indiana and Kentucky, fifth-year senior Peter Serruto’s seventh-inning three-run home run had lifted the Hoosiers past the Wildcats, 5-3.
Kentucky had no home runs in that loss to fall to the loser’s bracket only to hit two seventh-inning home runs the next day to best Indiana. Had the 2-0 Hoosiers won Sunday’s game, they’d advance out of the Lexington Regional to their first Super Regionals since 2013.
But they’ll have another shot. Kentucky’s victory forced a winner-take-all Game 7 Monday night between the two teams. This isn’t the first time Indiana has faced adversity this season.
Once the Hoosiers lost 12-2 to Kentucky in March, they won 21 of their next 25 games. After Indiana was swept in three games by Maryland, the Hoosiers strung together eight consecutive victories. Then, they dropped four of their last six games before the NCAA Tournament — only to then win back-to-back games in Lexington to go to the championship.
“It's an everyday sport, it's an everyday game,” Indiana head coach Jeff Mercer said postgame. “Sometimes you're on top of the hill and sometimes you’re on the bottom of the hill. “We've been through the battles and those things. So I think the team's in a fine spot. If you’ve won enough games to get to this point in the season, then you've had to persevere through obstacles throughout the course of the year. So we'll be ready to play tomorrow.”
Pitching staffs are often expended by the final day of regional play. Indiana redshirt senior Ty Bothwell threw 48 pitches Friday in the 12-6 win over West Virginia, while sophomore left-hander Ryan Kraft threw 48 pitches and freshman-right hander Connor Foley tossed 40 pitches in Saturday’s 5-3 first win over Kentucky. The three could be likely to pitch Monday.
Before the NCAA Tournament, Kentucky was 25-6 this season at home. Though it would’ve been impressive if Indiana defeated the Wildcats in back-to-back nights, the Hoosiers have lost home team advantage in regional play. Indiana was the designated home team for the last two games against the Wildcats, but Kentucky will be the home team Monday night.
The winner of Monday’s Game 7 Regional Final between Indiana and Kentucky at 6 p.m. at Kentucky Proud Park will determine which team advances to the Super Regionals.