LEXINGTON – It was the most momumental swing of Peter Serruto’s baseball career.
With two outs and two runners on in the seventh inning of Saturday’s winner’s bracket contest in the NCAA Tournament, the Hoosiers trailed 3-1 to the University of Kentucky. Indiana would go on to score four unanswered runs to win 5-3, moving to the regional championship.
Serruto fell behind 0-2 in the count to Kentucky’s ace Zack Lee. The senior had already recorded nine strikeouts by the end of the sixth inning, but Serruto patiently watched three balls go by, working the count full. Earlier in Saturday’s game, someone yelled, “Easy out!”
On Lee’s 101th pitch in the seventh, Serruto poked an opposite-field three-run home run. The record-breaking 6,094-strong crowd at Kentucky Proud Park were stunned. In an instant, Regional host and No. 12 national-seed Kentucky trailed 4-3, with less than one-third of the game left.
“(Serruto) was down two strikes and he took a really good pitch,” Indiana senior shortstop Phillip Glasser said postgame. “The crowd’s crazy, but I saw him just looking at his bat. I was like I know he's gonna get this done. I don't know about an oppo(site)-field jack, but I knew he wasn’t going to give the at-bat away… he did an unbelievable job of stepping in there.”
Perhaps Indiana head coach Jeff Mercer wasn’t anticipating that home run by the player with the fewest in the starting lineup –– Serruto only had two –– but it swiftly set the team’s plan into motion. Mercer said the coaching staff always tells the players to at least try for the two-run game in the seventh inning — either leading or trailing — then win it down the stretch.
Indiana’s done that all year. This season, the team is 9-1 in one-run games, while 10-3 in two-run games prior to Saturday. That’s now improved to 11-3. So, as the Hoosiers added an insurance run in the eighth inning to lead 5-3, the team’s odds only slightly decreased.
In Indiana’s first game of the regional, freshman Brayden Risedorph labored in the middle innings to keep the Hoosiers in the game before their eventual 12-6 victory over West Virginia University on Friday. That win placed the Hoosiers against Kentucky in the winner’s bracket.
Fellow freshman right-hander Connor Foley was tasked to lock up the victory, identically pitching in his first-career NCAA Tournament game. Foley was charged with one unearned run in the seventh inning which gave the Wildcats their 3-1 lead, the final time they scored.
Even as Foley plunked back-to-back batters in the ninth, bringing up the go-ahead run to the plate for Kentucky, Mercer confirmed postgame that Foley was always going to remain on the mound. It was similar to Indiana’s 6-5 win at Michigan State, May 20. Foley allowed two runs, but stayed in the game. Later, his nine-out save stranded the tying runner in scoring position.
Following Indiana’s mound visit, in which Foley remained in place, Kentucky almost recreated Serruto’s three-run homer twice. No. 3-hitter Devin Burkes lined out to the leaping Morgan Colopy at the right-field wall. Next batter, Emilien Pitre’s fly ball just went wide of the foul-pole. Pitre then popped up to Glasser, securing Indiana’s victory and Foley's individual win.
Following Indiana’s first regional-opening victory Friday night since the 2015 NCAA Tournament, the Hoosiers have started 2-0 in regional play for the first time since the 2014 NCAA Tournament, when they hosted in Bloomington. Earlier this season, Kentucky crushed Indiana 12-2, run-ruling the Hoosiers in seven innings.
Serruto didn’t play in that 40-degree weather March game. That was before the fifth-year senior took over as Indiana’s full-time catcher in the first week of April –– as Matthew Ellis suffered his season-ending injury. Three months later, Serruto playing in his second-career NCAA Tournament game in five seasons, his third home run of the year proved the decider.
“Once I got a fastball there and delivered, it was just like a dream come true,” Serruto said postgame. “Just runnning around the bases and enjoying that moment with my teammates.”
Following the 5-3 victory, Indiana advances to the Regional Championship. The Hoosiers need one more win to advance to their first Super Regionals since 2013. Indiana will play the winner of the elimination game between Kentucky and West Virginia at 6 p.m. on Sunday at Kentucky Proud Park. If Indiana loses, the final double-elimination game will be held Monday.