Freshmen pitchers step up in sweep of MSU

Sleet and snow accompanied the bitter cold at Illinois Field on Sunday afternoon as senior third baseman Dominic Altobelli stepped to the plate with the game tied and bases loaded.

With two outs in the bottom of the ninth in a matchup between No. 25 Illini and Michigan State, the ending did not match the storybook-type setup. Altobelli was anticlimactically hit by a pitch that forced in the winning run to give Illinois a 3-2 victory.

“I got hit, and then I just kind of turned around and put my arms up,” Altobelli said. “Then I just had to run down to first and touch the base.”

The win was the second of the weekend for the Illini (16-5), who also beat the Spartans (7-17) on Friday evening. The sweep gave Illinois a 3-0 start to conference play and put the Illini atop the Big Ten standings. Illinois head coach Dan Hartleb said he was impressed with the way the Spartans performed.

“They played hard,” Hartleb said. “They had a much better energy than they’ve had the past couple of years.”

Illinois set the tone for the series right away with a 10-3 victory Friday evening. With regular starters Phil Haig and Ben Reeser both nursing injuries, sophomore pitcher Lee Zerrusen garnered his first win of the season after throwing six strong innings. Sophomore outfielder Casey McMurray and junior shortstop Brandon Wikoff paced the Illini offensively, combining for a whopping eight RBIs.

Both batted 3-for-5, with McMurray also scoring two runs.

Saturday’s scheduled game was postponed due to rain, which led to a doubleheader on Sunday.

Neither game featured the explosive offensive numbers of Friday’s showdown, but freshman pitcher Bryan Roberts gave up just two runs in eight innings of work, leading Illinois to a 3-2 victory in game one.

“(Roberts) kept us in the game and gave us the opportunity to win the game,” Hartleb said.

Sophomore Nick Chmielewski pitched the ninth and was credited with the win. Roberts said he was happy with his performance and felt the pitching staff as a whole stepped up its game with Haig and Reeser sidelined.

“It just shows we have such a deep staff this year, which is a nice thing to have,” Roberts said.

Game two featured another Illini freshman on the mound, as Will Strack pitched a complete game and upped his win total to two after Illinois won 3-0 to complete the sweep.

Strack said the Illinis’ strong performance this weekend was much needed after they dropped three out of five on their spring trip in Florida.

“It just reminds us that we’re a good team,” Strack said. “We got back on top of things and got the ball rolling again.”

Hartleb was impressed with the composure of both Roberts and Strack.

“Some people tend to get tight in close games,” Hartleb said. “But those freshmen just kept doing their job.”

Hartleb also said the pitching staff as a whole will be a force to be reckoned with down the road.

“It’s going to make us a better team, what we went through this weekend,” Hartleb said. “Going in without a number-one and number-two (pitcher) and having those guys step up.”