OMAHA—Neither of Indiana's starting pitchers made it through five innings in last weekend's super regional sweep of Florida State. The Hoosiers won those games 10-9 and 11-6, bashing their way to Omaha. So it was only natural that Indiana's fearsome offense stole the headlines heading into the CWS—and nobody talked about the pitching staff, which ranked eighth in the nation with a 2.67 ERA this season.
"All I've heard all week is about Indiana's offense, our offense, our offense," Hoosiers coach Tracy Smith said Saturday night.
"We've said even to the group when we talk privately, as much as our offense has been something very key for us this year, at the end of the day, if you're going to win a national championship, you're still going to do it with your pitching and defense."
The Hoosiers played clean defense Saturday night against Louisville, and Joey DeNato took care of the pitching part all by himself. DeNato was masterful, throwing a four-hit shutout to lead the Hoosiers to a 2-0 win in their first-ever CWS game. The junior lefthander allowed just three walks while striking out eight in his first career shutout.
|Game At A Glance|
|Turning Point: Indiana scored a run in the top of the third to take a 2-0 lead, but Kyle Schwarber was thrown out at the plate to end the inning, giving Louisville some momentum. The Cardinals had a chance to seize even more momentum in the bottom of the frame. With Sutton Whiting on second base and two outs, Cole Sturgeon singled to right field, and Whiting tested Will Nolden's arm. Nolden fielded the ball right as Whiting rounded third and fired a bullet to the plate, throwing him out easily. "I think that was a key play, because they had just thrown us out prior to that," Indiana coach Tracy Smith said. "I think everybody in the dugout, we're used to that with him. We love it with the two-out base hits with Nolden because we know there's a play at the plate . . . He threw a perfect strike. Guys were excited in the dugout and they fed off of that—it was a huge play, huge play."
The Hero: Joey DeNato helped Indiana become just the third team since 2000 to win its College World Series debut. The junior lefthander turned in a four-hit, complete-game shutout, walking three and striking out eight. He threw 136 pitches and got stronger as the game went on.
You Might Have Missed: Indiana began the College World Series just like it began the 2013 season: with a 2-0 win against Louisville. DeNato faced Louisville's Chad Green in that Big East/Big Ten Challenge game as well, though DeNato went just four innings in his season debut. And Indiana's runs were driven in by Scott Donley and Michael Basil in both games.
"Definitely one of the top performances I've ever had," said the mild-mannered, understated DeNato. "But I think getting ahead in the count and throwing my curveball for a strike, first pitch—that's mostly what I was doing all night, and it was working well for me."
DeNato is a proven winner with a long track record—he went 7-3, 2.80 as a freshman and 7-3, 3.22 as a sophomore. He's been even better as a junior, improving to 10-2, 2.52 after Saturday's gem. But Smith said during the Big Ten tournament that the 5-foot-11 DeNato had a history of wearing down late in the season, so he eased Big Ten pitcher of the year Aaron Slegers into the No. 1 starter role heading into the postseason.
And DeNato was not sharp at Florida State, walking four batters exiting after three innings. But he has earned the trust of his coaches and teammates over the course of three seasons, and he was a natural choice to take the mound in IU's CWS debut—in front of 27,122 fans, the largest crowd in TD Ameritrade Park's three-year history. After a leadoff walk to start the Louisville first, DeNato retired seven straight hitters to establish a tone, and Indiana scored runs in the first and third to give him a lead he would not relinquish.
"Our dugout before the game was like our dugout before spring break, and before conference season," Smith said. "It's amazing to me because I was really anxious, to be honest with you. I was anxious to see if these guys would finally get a little nerves going a little bit. And once again, they did not."
Louisville's biggest threat came in the third, when Cole Sturgeon singled to right field with two outs, and IU's Will Nolden threw out Sutton Whiting at the plate to end the inning. That play energized the Hoosiers, and DeNato found his stride, striking out five of the next seven hitters. He spotted his 85-87 mph fastball well to both sides, freezing a couple of righthanded hitters by hitting the inside corner. He had excellent feel for his breaking ball, throwing it for a strike or a chase pitch, and his changeup was another effective weapon against those righties. Aside from Cole Sturgeon, who had two hits for Louisville, the Cardinals' lefthanded hitters really struggled against DeNato, going 0-for-11 with five strikeouts.
"Clearly we couldn't put a good swing on him, even in a couple of positive counts," Louisville coach Dan McDonnell said. "And I think 3-2 is a positive count for the hitter, and we just couldn't put a good swing on him. We were a little big, a little long, too many fly balls. Some of our lefties—I think Cole had a couple of knocks—but they looked like they weren't picking up the ball real well. So he handcuffed us. And when he had to make pitches, he made pitches."
As the losing team, Louisville had the first press conference, but McDonnell came back by the media room to greet DeNato after the Indiana press conference concluded. He made a point to shake DeNato's hand and congratulate him on the gritty performance.
DeNato admitted that last year at the end of the season, his arm felt less than 100 percent, but he focused on building up his endurance and taking better care of his arm between starts, and he feels as strong now as he did on opening day. And he got stronger as the game went on Saturday.
"In the beginning, I think I had butterflies, nervousness," he said. "But as the game went on, I think my pitches did get sharper and I was getting ahead in the count more often."
DeNato's previous season-high for pitches in a game was 122 in his final regular-season start at Ohio State on May 16. He threw 130 pitches through eight innings Saturday, and Smith sent him back out for the ninth. He rewarded his coach by breezing through a 1-2-3 final frame on just six pitches, to finish at 136.
"I think we were on the same page," DeNato said of Smith. "He knew I wanted to go out, and I knew I wanted to go out."
"We didn't say one word to each other the entire ballgame," Smith interjected. Then he turned to DeNato and asked, "Truth?"
"Yes," DeNato answered.
So Indiana advances to Monday's winners' bracket game against Mississippi State with its pitching in outstanding shape, thanks to DeNato.
"I realize we asked a lot of him tonight, his pitch count being 136," Smith said. "But this is the time of year I think everybody would agree you ask a little bit more of your guys."
The Hoosiers couldn't have asked for any more from DeNato.