Freshman McMurray drives in Sunday win, Penn State series split



By David Just

Illinois bats exploded for 17 runs on a cold and gray Sunday afternoon at Illinois Field to salvage a series sweep with the visiting Nittany Lions.

Left fielder Casey McMurray pounded away at Penn State pitching, going 11-for-15 during the four-game series. He also scored seven times and drove in five more.

“After Wednesday’s game, I went 0-for-4 and just kind of took a step back and told myself to refocus and get a good night’s sleep and be ready for the weekend,” said the freshman, whose batting average rose to .358 for the season after the 17-6 win. “This is a Big Ten series, so I knew I had to get back on track. I started hitting Friday night, and it carried over through the weekend.”

McMurray bats last in a lineup that has seen significant production out of the bottom of the order, and which spurred an eight-run fourth inning Sunday.

After Ryan Hastings grounded out to lead off the inning, the six-through-nine hitters reached base and that momentum carried over into the top half of the lineup. Overall, six straight Illini hitters reached base, and 12 came to the plate in the inning.

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“This is a resilient team,” said Illinois coach Dan Hartleb about his offense. “Every time we’ve faced adversity, we’ve rebounded and done a good job.”

The biggest concern for the Illini (25-16, 11-9 Big Ten) has been pitching, which struggled for much of the series. The Illini managed to win the first game, 20-11, but dropped the next two by scores of 16-5 and 10-7 to the Nittany Lions (19-23, 10-10).

“This team has the opportunity to be very, very good, but we need to get consistent starts,” Hartleb said. “I really feel like if those starters go out and give you a strong, solid start, then with our offense the bullpen can come in a lead situation.”

Billy Barrett earned his third win of the season Sunday and gave the team the solid start Hartleb was hoping for. After going 4 2/3 innings without allowing a hit, Barrett ran into trouble in the fifth and sixth innings and allowed four runs before leaving the bases loaded and making way for Mike Stankiewicz.

Stankiewicz started the Big Ten season as the team’s No. 2 starter, but a string of bad performances led Hartleb to tap Barrett for the series finale. Stankiewicz allowed a single to the first batter he faced and allowed another to score on a wild pitch, both of which were credited to Barrett.

But Hartleb wouldn’t say what the rotation will look like next weekend when the Illini face Northwestern at home.

“We’ve got some things that we need to continue to do with all the pitchers, and to go ahead and start making changes, I don’t know. We’ll evaluate and decide from there,” Hartleb said.

Kyle Hudson returned from his ankle injury to start the series and played like he hadn’t missed a beat, going 9-for-14 with five runs and two RBIs.

“My ankle felt a lot better today than it did yesterday,” Hudson said Sunday. “At the end of each game I was able to rest it.”

The junior center fielder wasn’t able to steal any bases against Penn State, but he said he should be ready to flash his speed once again next weekend.