Down but never out, baseball wins series

 

 

By Jason Grodsky

Opposing teams are learning firsthand about Illinois’ never-quit mentality.

Trailing early in two of the four games at Indiana, the Illini put their never-quit attitude to the test, using two big innings at the plate to come from behind to beat the Hoosiers in both the series opener and finale.

Illinois (17-8, 6-2 Big Ten) scored four runs in the top of the ninth to overcome a three-run deficit against Indiana (14-12, 3-5) and earn a 8-7 win on Saturday. The team then plastered a nine-spot on the scoreboard in the fourth inning of Monday’s series finale to overcome a one-run deficit to beat the Hoosiers 18-8 and clinch the series win.

“We don’t let the score affect us,” head coach Dan Hartleb said. “Our guys are confident every time we go to the plate and take the field that we’re going to win. When you have good teams they always believe they are going to win, and those are the teams that make comebacks.”

Hartleb dates the team’s resiliency back to its final Big Ten series last season against Michigan State, when Illinois came back to overtake the Spartans in the final game of the season to qualify for the conference tournament. “The majority of the guys were on this team last year and were part of that comeback against Michigan State, and those guys have taught the young guys what it takes to play an entire game and not give up,” Hartleb said.

It was the Illini offense that made this weekend’s comebacks possible, but the team’s bats can’t take all the credit; the Hoosiers’ defensive miscues played a role, too.

Trailing 7-4 and facing Indiana reliever Anthony Agnew, who had worked five scoreless innings, the Illini loaded the bases with no outs and then received a big gift from Hoosiers’ first baseman Jerrud Sabourin.

Illinois shortstop Brandon Wikoff hit a ground ball that got through the legs of Sabourin, allowing two runs to score. Third baseman Dominic Altobelli followed with a double to the left field wall, tying the game at seven.

Designated hitter Daniel Webb, who homered earlier in the game, brought home Wikoff with a sacrifice fly to left to give Illinois an 8-7 lead.

Junior closer Ben Reeser held the Hoosiers scoreless in the bottom half of the inning to give Illinois its second ninth-inning comeback win of the year.

“We never quit,” Wikoff said. “We fed off each other and after we got a runner on we kind of got it going and knew that we would have a chance.”

Trailing by three again on Monday, Illinois chipped away at the Hoosiers’ early lead, pulling to within one before exploding for its biggest inning of the season.

The Illini took advantage of two errors and three wild pitches to put nine runs on the scoreboard in the fourth, sending 13 batters to the plate in the inning to give them an 11-3 lead.

Indiana chipped away at the Illini lead, but the offense put the game out of reach with six more runs in the ninth to give the team a season-high 18 runs.

“We capitalized on every error they made,” Wikoff said. “Even if there were one or two outs and they made a mistake, we got a big hit and it started a rally.”

Relief pitcher Phil Haig, a redshirt freshman quarterback on the football team, closed the game out with three strikeouts in his first career appearance to give junior starter Aaron Martin his team-high fourth win of the year and the team’s eighth comeback victory of the season.

While Martin won his fourth game of the year, Illinois’ best performance on the mound came from junior Scott Shaw, who was wild but effective in the third game of the series on Sunday. The right-hander redeemed the Illini following an 8-1 loss earlier in the day, tossing his second straight seven-inning complete game in the second game of the doubleheader.

Shaw walked five batters but allowed just five hits and struck out five batters to lead the Illini to a 7-4 win.

“They had a lot of momentum after their win and it was my job to go out and shut them down and I was able to help us bounce back,” Shaw said.

“We’ve just got to take this into the rest of the week and then the weekend, and just keep the same mentality we’ve had these past two weekends,” the junior added.