Illini baseball fails to pull off upset



By Steve Contorno

Illinois led twice and as late as the seventh inning but couldn’t pull off the upset Thursday night, falling to Michigan 6-2 in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament.

“Our guys played hard and competed well,” head coach Dan Hartleb said. “Michigan just found a way to get some key hits down the stretch.”

After taking a 2-1 lead in the top of the seventh thanks to a Dominic Altobelli RBI single, Illinois starting pitcher Scott Shaw returned to the mound hoping to close out the game and pick up the win. However, top-seeded Michigan broke out for three runs with two outs in the bottom half of the inning to go ahead 5-2. The Wolverines added an unnecessary insurance run in the eighth and sent the Illini to the losers’ side of the bracket where they will be in a win-or-go-home situation for the remainder of the tournament.

“The first time we faced them we played pretty bad, but Shaw kept us in the game and we fought,” senior right fielder Daniel Webb said. “Their pitching just didn’t make any mistakes.”

With a bye in the first round, the conference champion Wolverines were able to put their ace out against the Illini. Zach Putnam recorded seven innings of work and tallied nine strikeouts to pick up the win. Illinois’ top hurler, sophomore Kevin Manson, was used in Wednesday’s 3-2 victory against Ohio State, forcing the Illini to match up their No. 2 starter against Michigan’s No. 1. That won’t be a problem for the next two days, Webb said, which is relief for the hitters who have been able to manufacture just five runs so far this tournament.

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“We’ve been going against everyone’s No. 1s so far. It’s tough to score runs when you’re facing good pitching like that,” Webb said. “Now we start to see everyone’s No. 3s and the hits will start to come.”

The Illini, too, will be using their No. 3 Friday as Phil Haig gets the start against No. 6 Indiana. But the freshman hurler is coming off a good start, a two-hit shutout against Purdue, and Illinois’ hitters are confident behind him.

“When Phil has his stuff he’s pretty tough to hit,” Webb said. “If he throws well and we hit the ball like we can, I know we can come away with a win.”

Illinois will try not to repeat recent history Friday. In last season’s Big Ten Tournament, the Illini took the first game and when on to lose their next two and were eliminated from the tourney.

“Anytime you go through an experience you grow and learn from it,” Hartleb said. “Our guys know it’s one and done from here on out, and I’m confident they’ll be resilient as they have all year.”

If the Illini can top the Hoosiers and avoid elimination, they will face No. 3 Penn State. Illinois could have avoided a double header Friday if they had not lost the three seed to the Nittany Lions in the final week of conference play.

Friday’s game against Indiana is set to start at 11:05 with the possible second game scheduled for 2:35.