Baseball wins series with No. 23 Minnesota

By Meghan Montemurro

With his baseball team in third place halfway through the Big Ten conference schedule, Illinois head coach Dan Hartleb embraced his squad’s position after a 2-1 weekend against No. 23 Minnesota.

“I’ve always said, if we go into the last two weekends in the top three with a chance to win, I’ll take it,” said Hartleb on Sunday. “We still have a ways to go; you take one thing at a time.”

Illinois (23-11, 8-4 Big Ten) sits only a half-game behind Indiana (18-18, 8-3) and one game behind Ohio State (29-8, 9-3) after winning 15-10 on Friday night and 10-7 in Saturday’s first game. The Illini lost to the Gophers, 12-8, in the nightcap of Saturday’s doubleheader.

“We’re feeling good … being down early in every game, we really played pretty well and they played well,” said left fielder Casey McMurray. “Two of the top offenses in our conference, we really showed it out there, hitting something of high teens every time with hits and runs. So it was a good weekend.”

McMurray was the catalyst for the Orange and Blue offense against Minnesota, hitting .467 (7-for-15) with four RBIs and five runs in the series.

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Sluggish midweek offensive performances against Eastern Illinois and Southern Illinois were forgotten against Minnesota (23-12, 7-4). Senior Dominic Altobelli started the hot hitting on Friday, falling only a triple shy of the cycle.

The third baseman finished the game 3-for-5 with a home run, three runs and a career-high five RBIs.

“I don’t know what it was. I don’t know if the warm weather kind of warmed our bats up a little bit,” Altobelli said on Sunday. “We just all took good hitting approaches and wanted to put good swings on the ball so it worked out this weekend.”

The Gophers struggled at times to keep senior center fielder Joe Bonadonna off the basepaths. Bonadonna is 24-for-46 (.522) in his career against Minnesota, collecting six hits in 15 at-bats against the Gophers in the series. He scored six times and had an RBI on the weekend. “I don’t know (why there was so much offense). I guess our offenses are just that good,” McMurray said. “They got guys one through nine that can hit the ball, and we’ve got guys one through nine that hit the ball and the game’s never over, so just keep playing all nine innings and anything can happen.”

On the weekend, the Illini scored 33 runs en route to its second series win against a ranked opponent this year. The other came against then-No. 1 LSU.

Hartleb cited his bullpen’s ability to perform when called upon as defining factor in winning the weekend series.

“I think our bullpen has played a huge role this entire year. I think we’ve had good starting pitching. I think we’ve had a strong bullpen,” Hartleb said. “We’ve had weekends when we haven’t had to go to the bullpen in one game, and that’s made a difference for the three, but that’s what you have an entire staff for, and that’s why everybody on the staff has to go out and perform.”

The Gophers’ defensive effort did nothing to help them. Minnesota committed nine errors during the weekend series, compared to Illinois’ one.

“I thought offensively we played well, I thought defensively we played well, and we pitched well until the last three innings, and that cost us the ballgame,” said Hartleb. “So overall, the resiliency of this team and the drive and the fight they have, I’m pleased. I’m pleased with what we did.”