IU earns signature win, tops No. 2 Louisville 4-3

Tim Herrin pumped his left fist. Then he pumped it again.

The Indiana sophomore left-hander had reason to let loose, having just struck out Louisville’s star cleanup hitter Brendan McKay on a series of perfectly-placed sliders low and away in the eighth inning of a one-run ballgame.

To claim their signature win of the season, the Hoosiers leaned on their bullpen.

It didn’t disappoint.

Five IU pitchers combined to help the Hoosiers knock off the No. 2 Cardinals, 4-3, on Tuesday before a season-high crowd of 3,077 at Bart Kaufman Field. Nights like this haven’t always been possible for this Hoosier team — not as Indiana sought to reconstruct the dynamics of a young and largely unproven bullpen through most of the regular season.

Now, with the postseason merely a week away, things appear different. IU’s bullpen no longer seems like the liability it once was.

“You can’t win without your bullpen,” IU coach Chris Lemonis said. “I know starting pitching is important and everything, but I remember my first year here (in 2015). We had that great bullpen and I feel like this one is evolving into that with some options, too. Some of our lefties are really tough matchups.”

Like Herrin.

A starter during the first couple months of the season, Herrin has worked in relief since April 16. Lemonis used him as a matchup lefty on Tuesday, pulling right-hander Kade Kryzsko against the left-handed McKay.

McKay, a potential top five pick in next month’s MLB Draft, is a disciplined and powerful hitter who doesn’t often chase pitches out of the strike zone, but Herrin pulled the string and got him to reach on back-to-back sliders for a strikeout to end the eighth.

McKay finished 0-for-3 with two strikeouts.

“I go in there knowing he’s one of the better players in the country, but as a pitcher you gotta have a little bit of arrogance to yourself and think that you’re better, even if you’re not,” Herrin said. “You can still beat anybody. That’s how I was thinking when I got out there. He’s probably one of the best hitters in the country and I went out there and did my job. It worked out.”

Although it was certainly a valuable win to add to Indiana’s resume, it didn’t give IU (30-19-2) quite the RPI boost the team was hoping for.

The Hoosiers, it seems, are still paying for Friday’s loss to last-place Penn State. They moved up only three spots to No. 30 in the RPI by press time Tuesday.

Even so, it’s a momentum-generating win to start the final week of the regular season. The Hoosiers begin a three-game series at Ohio State on Thursday and host the Big Ten Tournament in Bloomington next week.

“At the end of the day, when somebody’s looking at a piece of paper and who they’ve played and who they’ve played well against, we put ourselves out there and it’s paying off,” Lemonis said.

IU found each of its four runs in the bottom of the second, collecting a two-run double by Matt Gorski, who came home moments later on Ryan Fineman’s double down the right field line

Fineman chugged home for the fourth run when Tony Butler lined a ball through the legs of third baseman Tyler Fitzgerald of Louisville (46-7).

It all amounted to early run support for IU starter Andrew Saalfrank, who pitched well in his first start since March 29. Saalfrank went 4 1/3 innings, and was charged with three runs — two of which came when reliever B.J. Sabol yielded a double to Logan Taylor after Saalfrank departed in the top of the fifth.

Otherwise, it was a strong night for IU pitching, which also took advantage of some crucial plays in the field. The Hoosiers’ infield turned double plays in the second and third innings and Fineman prevented a stolen base during a critical sequence in the seventh inning.

With one out, Sabol put two runners on via a walk and a single when Lemonis opted for a righty-righty matchup between Kryzsko and Taylor, the Cardinals’ leadoff man.

Louisville tried the double steal on Kryzsko’s first pitch, but Fineman nabbed Fitzgerald at second base with the help of a nice tag by Butler. Two pitches later, Kryzsko struck out Taylor looking to end the inning.

“That was a huge play in the game,” Lemonis said. “… I thought that inning was the turning point in the ballgame. I feel like that’s usually when they take advantage of somebody and Ryan put that ball right on the money.”

Just like the pitchers he spent the night catching.

Kryzsko worked quickly to get the first two outs of the eighth before yielding to Herrin. After falling behind 2-0 to begin the at-bat, Herrin bounced back and challenged one of the nation’s best hitters with a string breaking balls.

When McKay missed for strike three, Herrin allowed himself a moment to celebrate. The standing-room-only crowd rose to its feet and the Hoosiers made the most of one of their last opportunities to pad their resume for the postseason to come.

“We’ve been figuring things out,” Herrin said of the IU bullpen. “We’ve had our rough patches this year and I think that we’re finally getting to a point where we’re just being ourselves and we’re not trying to do too much. It’s working out. I think we can make a run here down the stretch.”