Milto eager to embrace Friday role for Hoosiers

Pauly Milto’s Indiana career has followed a natural progression, one that has carried the right-hander into the prominent role he enjoys today.

The majority of Milto’s first year and a half in Bloomington was spent working out of the bullpen, functioning as a versatile reliever able to pitch to the needs of the situation. He received his first promotion midway through the 2017 campaign, taking over the Sunday starter slot and pitching so well down the stretch that former coach Chris Lemonis named him IU’s Pitcher of the Year. Then, last season, Milto jumped into the Saturday spot, earning All-Big Ten Second Team honors while working to a 2.03 ERA.

This year, Milto is taking on his biggest challenge yet.

As Indiana’s Friday starter, the senior from Greenwood is being tasked with positioning the Hoosiers for weekend series wins in Jeff Mercer’s first season as IU coach. For Milto, it’s a role he’s spent his college career building toward, and a role he’s eager to embrace.

“It’s awesome,” Milto said. “I love just being the leader. Just knowing I have that on my back is fun for me.”

With one weekend in the books, Milto is off to a good start.

He shut down Memphis in last week’s season opener, allowing only two hits and striking out seven across seven shutout innings. Milto faced only two batters over the minimum in that 6-1 victory over the Tigers, and it marked the 10th time in his career that he tossed at least six innings while allowing zero earned runs.

“I felt great,” Milto said. “Being able to go through my preparation throughout the week and just trusting that I would get my work in and get out on the mound (paid off). Everything went to my plan, and to be able to execute my plan went well.”

He’ll get the ball for Friday afternoon’s 4:30 first pitch at Tennessee, the first matchup in a three-game set with the Volunteers.

“He couldn’t be suited more perfectly for (the Friday assignment),” Mercer said. “He’s unflappable. He’s very even-tempered, even-keeled. He’s got a three-to-four pitch mix, both sides of the plate (and he) fields his position — all the things you want to see a guy do to give you six, seven, hopefully down the line eight innings strong.

“You look at him (last) weekend and what he did to conserve our bullpen in that first game, it really gave us a chance in that second game to conserve some guys.”

Really, Milto was simply picking up where he left off in 2018.

He pitched into the sixth inning in six of his final seven outings as Indiana’s Saturday starter, and twirled a complete game shutout against Texas Southern in the NCAA Tournament. Milto struck out 10 batters in that contest, picking up his eighth and final win of the season.

In his last two season-opening starts, Milto has combined for 13 innings, allowing no runs and just three hits with 12 strikeouts and two walks.

During this past offseason, Milto kept developing. He added a changeup to an arsenal that has already allowed him to work to a 2.92 ERA over the course of his career.

“He’s done things on the field to allow this program to have success for a long time,” Mercer said. “Behind the scenes, it’s his ability to truly grab a staff and help to lead it and grow and mature young guys.”

Indiana’s starters were among the biggest bright spots from the series win at Memphis. In 17 innings, Milto, Tanner Gordon and Tommy Sommer combined to allow only one earned run on 10 hits with 17 strikeouts and only two walks.

“We’ve kept that a strong suit,” Milto said of IU’s starting pitching success.

Milto’s development into IU’s Friday starter is a major reason why.

“What we want to see is him continue to be a leader and pay forward the lessons that he’s an upperclassmen teaching, (lessons) that he’s learned by pitching the biggest innings in program history, certainly over the last 10 years,” Mercer said. “Those are the things we asked of him and he’s done a tremendous job of (following through).”