Manson’s gem leads Illinois to victory in Big Ten tourney

By Steve Contorno

Kevin Manson said he didn’t have his best stuff Wednesday against fifth-seeded Ohio State. If that’s the case, it would be scary to see him when he does.

The sophomore hurler threw a complete game to lead the No. 4-seeded Illini to a 3-2 victory in the opening round of the Big Ten Tournament, allowing just four hits and two unearned runs. The win was Manson’s second against the Buckeyes in 12 days, this time to advance his team to the winner’s bracket of the conference tournament.

“I actually wasn’t throwing too well, but I was hitting my spots,” said Manson, who recorded four strikeouts and no walks. “I didn’t have life in my fastball like I usually do. My curve wasn’t great. My change got some outs when I needed it. But I was hitting my spots with them all and that made the difference.”

Head coach Dan Hartleb said he was impressed with Manson’s control.

“If you talk to any coach or any pitcher, they’ll take good location over good stuff any day,” Hartleb said. “You can have good location and bad stuff and still pitch well and win, but if you have good stuff and you’re wild, you won’t be very effective.”

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Manson said his success was a combination of his recent success against Ohio State and the stage he was playing on.

“I had a good outing in Columbus last time I faced them. I just took what I learned and brought it,” Manson said. “And to be playing in the Big Ten Tournament and to get the team into the winner’s bracket, my adrenaline was pumping a bit. It was a combination of those two things.”

With the win, Illinois avoids the loser’s bracket and a difficult path to the championship game in the double-elimination tournament. The Illini will face conference champion Michigan on Thursday.

“Any time you can stay in the winner’s bracket and play tomorrow without worrying about elimination, it lets you stay loose,” second baseman Joe Bonadonna said.

Illinois scored in the first inning off a Brandon Wikoff sacrifice fly, but Ohio State responded in the top of the second, scoring two runs to take the lead. Illinois’ Daniel Webb then drove in Wikoff in the third inning to end the scoring for the next four innings.

With the game knotted at two, an unlikely candidate hit the home run that put the Illini ahead. Bonadonna blasted his first long ball of the season in the seventh inning, a liner that had enough air to carry over the left-field wall. The solo shot gave the Illini the go-ahead run and turned into the game-winning at bat after Manson pitched a scoreless eighth and ninth.

“I was looking for a single and a stolen base,” Hartleb said of Bonadonna’s at bat. “But I’m excited for Joe. He’s been hitting the ball hard all year. His first college home run will be a memorable one.”

Hartleb will send Scott Shaw to the mound against Michigan in an attempt to knock the conference champs into the loser’s bracket and avenge a four-game sweep earlier this year.

“Scott has the best stuff on the team and has had some success on this field,” Hartleb said.

Shaw had a rough outing in his last start, allowing 11 earned runs against Purdue. But Hartleb said his choice to use Shaw over Phil Haig, who threw a two-hit shutout against the Boilermakers in the same weekend, wasn’t difficult.

“The thing that makes this decision easy is you know you’re going to need at least two more starting pitchers when you’re not facing elimination,” Hartleb said.

For the Illini to be successful against the Wolverines, the team will have to overcome its recent scoring woes. Despite ranking among the conference leaders in most hitting categories, Illinois has struggled to put together runs. Even with 11 hits Wednesday, the team was only able to manufacture three.

But Hartleb said his players are “resilient” and will rise to the challenge against Michigan.

“(Michigan is) the best team, but on any given day any team is capable of winning or losing and we’re capable of beating them,” Hartleb said. “We played poorly against them earlier this year, and our guys are excited for the opportunity to bounce back.”

The first pitch is set to be thrown at 6:05 p.m.