Hart shuts down Radford in 7-1 Indiana win

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — He’s been the stopper for Indiana’s starting pitching woes over the last month of the season, but even Kyle Hart has seen his fits and struggles.

The first couple innings tend to be an adventure for the left-hander, who requires a frame or two before he can settle into each start. So after he put two runners on base with no outs in the bottom of the first, Hart figured he was heading down the same road as usual. It was no time to panic, but a moment that required focus and, maybe, a bit of luck.

Then it happened — a strikeout, a runner caught stealing and another left to dry between third base and home plate — all in the same sequence, a triple play that propelled Hart to his finest start of the season.

Hart set season highs with seven innings and six strikeouts, leading the No. 3 Hoosiers to a 7-1 victory over No. 2 Radford in the Nashville Regional opener at Hawkins Field. The win keeps the Hoosiers in the winner’s bracket and sets up a matchup with No. 1 Vanderbilt Saturday at 8 Eastern. Christian Morris will make the start for IU.

Friday was an afternoon two years in the making for Hart, who did not appear in a game during each of the last two years’ worth of NCAA Tournament appearances for Indiana. He was exceptional in his third consecutive start of six innings of more, earning a critical win that keeps the Hoosiers away from elimination.

Afterward, he credited the triple play for turning an ominous start into a moment of Hoosier baseball history.

“That was probably the luckiest play I’ve ever been a part of, ever seen,” Hart said. “That totally revamped my start and I don’t think I would have had the type of success I had without that play.”

It all surfaced so quickly for the Hoosiers, who were staring at an almost-certain deficit early in the first inning. With runners on the corners, Hart struck out Radford No. 3 hitter Patrick Marshall on a fastball to the outside corner of the plate before catcher Brad Hartong threw to second base to nab Josh Reavis on a steal attempt.

“I was reading the runner at first,” Hart said, “so when he didn’t go, I threw the pitch and struck the kid out. I heard, ‘Runner!’ and I knew he was absolutely canned because he didn’t get a good jump. I knew we were getting two outs.”

Then they recorded a third. Shortstop Nick Ramos made a nice tag to retire Reavis and tossed the ball back to Hartong, who caught leadoff man Shane Johnsonbaugh between third and home and tagged him to end the inning.

“We’ve been practicing that triple play for the last couple of weeks,” IU coach Chris Lemonis said with a smile. “So it was nice to see it worked out in the first.”

From there, Hart found what he was looking for and settled in over the next six innings. He threw first-pitch strikes to 17 of the 24 batters he faced and, over the middle innings, sat down 10 in a row. Hart didn’t walk a single batter while throwing 64 of his 92 pitches for strikes, helping IU end Radford’s 15-game winning streak.

“Kyle is the epitome of our team,” Lemonis said. “We don’t really have a ton of superstars. He pitches very gritty and never gives in. When he came back and got in the mix for us (in early May) is when we kind of took off as a team. A lot of his personality has rubbed off on our whole ball club.”

The only run on Hart’s line was unearned and came on an RBI groundout by Hunter Higgerson in the bottom of the seventh. By that time, the game was well in control.

Hartong put Indiana ahead in the top of the third on an RBI single to left that scored Casey Rodrigue. The early run was a credit to Rodrigue, who ran hard around the bases after popping a one-out pitch to right field. Three Highlanders converged on the ball, but none of them could grab it as Rodrigue pulled into third. It was scored as a triple for Rodrigue, who came around on Hartong’s base hit two batters later.

The Hoosiers added three more runs in the fourth on a pair of hard-hit balls to left field. Third baseman Brian Wilhite made solid contact on a 2-1 fastball and drove it to the gap for a two-run double. Nick Ramos brought him home moments later on a triple to the same spot.

Craig Dedelow blasted the game open when he cranked a two-out, two-run homer to right field in the top of the seventh. Ramos also scored on a double play ball off the bat of Scott Donley earlier in the inning. It all added up to one big victory for Indiana, which needs two more wins to escape the regional.

“It’s just huge for any postseason program,” Lemonis said. “We take a lot of pride in being a postseason program. Casey Rodrigue hit the pop up and gets to third, and even in the dugout I’m joking that we are going to be talking to our future teams about Casey Rodrigue and how hard he hustled in the postseason. It’s the experiences you get, and the more we do it the more comfortable we are.”