Freshmen pitchers stand out

 

 

By Jason Grodsky

Freshman Nick Chmielewski and the Illinois bullpen turned in a nearly flawless performance on Wednesday night.

Making his first start of his career, Chmielewski threw three innings and relievers Lee Zerrusen, Wes Braun and Mike Stankiewicz combined to strikeout five St. Louis batters in five innings of relief, leaving it up to junior Ben Reeser to preserve the first no-hitter in Illinois history since “Boo” Champagne achieved the feat against Bradley on April 24, 1984.

It took only one pitch for the no-hitter to be erased.

Reeser allowed a single between the shortstop and third baseman to St. Louis’ lead-off hitter J.D. Dunn, and then went on to allow the Billikens to score two runs in the final frame before finally putting the game away on a long, long fly out to right field to give Illinois a 9-2 win over the Billikens (11-13).

“In the bullpen guys were telling me to just go out there and go after them and let them get themselves out,” Reeser said. “With the first pitch I just tried to get ahead with a fastball and the hitter was just waiting for it.”

Chmielewski, the first true freshman starter since Kevin Manson against Indiana last season, said he had thrown five no-hitters throughout his career at different levels up to this point.

The right-hander’s night didn’t have a promising out look in the first inning when walked the bases loaded with one out, but didn’t panic and recovered to get the next Billikens’ hitter to ground into an inning ending double play.

The rookie then retired the next six batters before allowing a walk in fourth inning.

“I stopped guiding the ball after the first few hitters and just let it fly and that got me into a rhythm,” Chmielewski said.

Coming into the game Chmielewski was 0-2 with an ERA over eight, but head coach Dan Hartleb wanted to give him the opportunity to start and he responded with his first win of his career.

Even with no hits allowed, Hartleb chose to pull Chmielewski and put in redshirt freshman Zerrusen to allow some of his other pitchers to stay fresh heading into the team’s weekend series against Indiana.

“We wanted everybody to get work and be in a situation where guys are ready to go Friday, Saturday and Sunday,” Hartleb said. “The decision to take him out had nothing to do with what he was doing. We just wanted guys to get some innings.”

Fellow freshman Braun followed Zerrusen’s two scoreless innings of relief with two perfect innings of his own, striking out three batters before turning it over to Reeser in the ninth.

“There was a little pressure on the mound, but when you have two guys go out there and throw the ball well ahead of you it becomes contagious,” Braun said.

“It was a cool experience, but what’s more important is we came out as a staff and pitched well.”

The Illini pitching staff has allowed less than three runs in each of the last five games and for the first time at home the team’s pitching outshined their offensive onslaught.

Junior right fielder Nick Stockwell led the Illini offensive attack, going 2-for-4 with two RBIs and hit his first home run of the season, a monstrous solo blast over the scoreboard in left field to lead off the second inning.

Illinois (14-7) has now scored 39 runs in three games at Illinois Field this season.

“It’s easy to go out and perform behind pitching like that,” Stockwell said.

“We were lucky to get on them early and keep rolling and it probably helped calm down our staff.”