Peter Serruto and Indiana show a new generation the joy of beating Kentucky
Beating Kentucky never gets old to an Indiana Hoosier.
It has, however, gotten dated.
The last meeting between the headlining basketball programs at the schools was in the 2016 NCAA Tournament, and they haven’t played in the regular season since December 2011.
There was a time when going to Indiana meant an annual shot at the Wildcats in both football and men’s basketball. For a variety of reasons, that’s fizzled out in both sports. Now there’s no telling when the schools will meet, which means every opportunity to top the Cats must be savored.
And few instances have been more delicious than Saturday night’s 5-3 win over the top-seeded Wildcats in the NCAA baseball Lexington Regional. The win put Indiana in Sunday night’s regional championship against the winner of Sunday afternoon’s elimination game between Kentucky and West Virginia.
Baseball is at its best when unlikely heroes deliver. Saturday provided a classic example.
In every other sport, you can mask your team’s deficiencies in some way.
Play zone defense. Don’t pass the ball to someone who doesn’t score. Run the option if you’re an undersized football team.
That’s not the case in baseball. Every man must step into the batter’s box. And numerically speaking, that makes the No. 9 hitter in the batting order the least likely candidate for postseason heroics.
There’s no confusing Peter Serruto for Kyle Schwarber, the greatest catcher and slugger in Indiana history. Serruto came into regionals with 3 home runs this season. He only had 7 extra-base hits, period. Serruto’s a pretty decent hitting catcher — .272 — but they’re almost exclusively singles.
But just like Schwarber, Serruto now has “clutch postseason home run” as part of his Indiana resume.
It was not a majestic Schwarbomb; it was something more beautiful.
Peter Serruto flips the script with a swing of the bat 💪 pic.twitter.com/e0zR8BzAVd
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) June 4, 2023
Facing a full count with two out, Serruto was just trying to put something in play. Kentucky starter Zack Lee had been keyed in all game.
“With the fans getting into it, I had to slow my heart down, catch my breath and never come off the heater,” Serruto told the SEC Network crew after the game. “I was fortunate to get one there on a 3-2 count and drive it the other way.”
Serruto’s opposite-field fly kept drifting and drifting and drifting until its sudden, shocking landing in the IU bullpen. The sound of delirious Hoosier relievers drowned out the stunned Kentucky home crowd.
Beating Kentucky brings a special joy
It would have been a great moment against any team, of course. Indiana’s postseason history is limited beyond the 2013 College World Series run by Schwarber’s crew.
But to come against Kentucky? That adds a layer to everything. It’s among the reasons that Christian Watford’s buzzer-beater against the No. 1 Wildcats resonates as an even bigger moment than Kirk Haston’s buzzer-beater against No. 1 Michigan State a decade earlier.
To borrow Kentucky’s conference motto, beating the Cats just means more.
Serruto’s shot is not unlike No. 9 hitter Bucky Dent’s infamous homer against Boston in a 1978 playoff game. And not just because it was a three-run, go-ahead homer in the seventh inning that seemed to magically drift over the wall.
Obviously, delivering the crucial blow to help clinch a division title would mean a lot regardless of opponent.
But because Dent did it against the Red Sox at Fenway Park?
He’s Buddy Bleepin’ Dent for the rest of his life, and beyond.
That’s the type of moment in Hoosier lore that Serruto may have just helped write — provided the Hoosiers can finish off this regional.
For a brief moment, it looked like the Wildcats would instead strike the final dramatic blow. And it was oddly reminiscent of another famous home run at Fenway in the 1970s.
With two outs and two on in the top of the ninth, Kentucky second baseman Emiline Pitre hit a towering fly ball that vanished out of sight of the camera. The only thing that was obvious was that it was going over the leftfield fence. Which side of the foul pole was a mystery.
For a good 2-3 seconds — likely longer for IU fans — nothing was certain. But in an anti-Carlton Fisk moment, the ball hooked a few feet foul.
Just a long strike. Disaster averted.
There was one last drip of drama as IU shortstop Phillip Glasser ranged into the outfield to rob Pitre of a bloop single. It was an epic ending to an epic at-bat and an epic game.
All of it was a reminder that Kentucky and Indiana should be doing this more often in all sports. At least they still do play each other in baseball, although Kentucky coach Nick Mingione may be tempted to pull a Calipari and run from the Hoosiers by the time this weekend is over.
Or maybe the Cats will add some kindling to this musty rivalry. If Kentucky beats West Virginia and then picks up back-to-back wins over Indiana, you can bet UK fans will be chirping about it for a long time.
That every outcome is still possible — including the rise of another unlikely Hoosier hero — is part of what makes postseason college baseball so great.
And if it means beating Kentucky twice? Boy, would that be nice.