Illinois pitching falls apart in rain-shortened series

By Steve Contorno

Poor weather followed a poor pitching performance by the Illini as the team dropped two of three games to Ohio State in a shortened weekend. Heavy rain and tornado warnings canceled Sunday’s game, robbing Illinois of a chance to split the series with the Buckeyes, who sit two spots behind the third-place Illini in the conference standings.

“We really needed to get a win and get the split,” shortstop Brandon Wikoff said. “We should have been able to pick up a second win (Saturday), but we weren’t able to hold on.”

Ohio State (27-21, 13-13 Big Ten) pounded the Illinois hurlers for 24 hits en route to 9-2 and 14-8 wins against Illinois (29-20, 15-12) in games two and three of the series, respectively. Of the 23 runs scored, 19 were credited to Illini pitchers, who blew three leads, including a five-run advantage in game three of the series.

“We weren’t effective on the mound,” head coach Dan Hartleb said. “We fell behind in a lot of counts, which allows the hitter to be more selective. We did not execute at all from a pitching standpoint.”

For all the problems Illinois pitchers had Saturday, Friday’s game was won on the strength of the team’s pitching. Sophomore starter Kevin Manson went six innings and allowed just two runs, one earned, in a 9-4 victory. Manson, who moved to 7-1 on the season and picked up his fifth conference win, could have pitched longer had weather not affected the series again and postponed Friday’s final three innings to Saturday. At 78 pitches, Manson said he had plenty more in him and that he usually doesn’t get shut down until 100 or 110 pitches.

Get The Daily Illini in your inbox!

  • Catch the latest on University of Illinois news, sports, and more. Delivered every weekday.
  • Stay up to date on all things Illini sports. Delivered every Monday.
This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.
Thank you for subscribing!

Still, Manson was happy with his outing.

“It was nice to get off to a good start, not just for myself but for the team to start the weekend off right,” Manson said. “I was hitting my spots well and having a lot of first pitch strikes.”

Hartleb was complimentary of Manson, who has turned into the staff ace and was one of the few bright spots on the weekend.

“Kevin did a great job for us. He was ahead in the count a lot,” Hartleb said. “It’s a shame he didn’t get to go further into it. But I’m proud of the way he pitched.”

Saturday’s starters weren’t able to build on Manson’s success. Aaron Martin pitched six innings and allowed all nine of the Buckeyes’ runs in game two, while Phil Haig survived just 3 1-3 before getting pulled.

“It’s tough because I had a good outing, so to see my teammates struggle, it’s not a good thing. It’s frustrating,” Manson said.

After pounding Ohio State for nine runs in the series opener, Illinois’ hitters, too, cooled off considerably in the second game, scoring just two runs, both produced by Wikoff. The shortstop was also the only Illini to record multiple hits in the second game, going 2-for-3 from the plate while his teammates went 4-for-22.

The bats did heat up in the second game, busting out for a seven-run rally in the top of the fifth started by a John Schlicter solo home run. But the Illini saw their five-run lead erased when the Buckeyes scored 10 in the bottom half of the inning.

“It’s a frustrating situation and a disappointing situation,” Hartleb said of the inning. “All we had to do was get ahead in the count and pitch to contact and let our defense do its job and we come away with two wins.”

Saturday’s marathon of games was exhausting for the players, Wikoff said.

“It makes it a very long day when you have to finish the first game and then play two more. Especially when you lose those two games, it’s pretty mentally draining,” Wikoff said. “It feels like you spent the whole day at the ballpark. But we were ready to go (Sunday) if it hadn’t been canceled.”

According to conference rules, Sunday’s game will not be made up. Instead, the Illini will close the conference schedule and the regular season next week when Purdue travels to Champaign for a four-game series. Illinois will need to sweep the series to swap spots in the Big Ten standings with the second-place Boilermakers.

“It’s not only important for the standings, but it’s important to sweep this series to get confidence going into the Big Ten tourney,” Wikoff said.