Illinois baseball falters in last regular season series

The reason for the Illinois baseball team’s struggles at Purdue this weekend was quite obvious to head coach Dan Hartleb.

“We just didn’t throw quality pitches,” Hartleb said. “(We threw) a lot of elevated pitches, and we’d fall behind in the count.”

The Illini (33-18, 16-8 Big Ten) dropped two out of three in West Lafayette, Ind., and the starting pitching was indicative of the final result in each game. On Thursday, Illinois starter Phil Haig gave up 11 hits and six runs in five innings, and the Boilermakers (24-24, 11-12) took the 12-5 win.

Will Strack’s strong start Friday helped Illinois respond and grab a 6-3 win. The freshman went 6 1/3 innings, allowing three runs on eight hits. In Saturday’s series finale, Bryan Roberts’ poor outing put Illinois in a hole, as he gave up six runs – four earned – on seven hits in only 2 1/3 innings before being pulled with his team trailing 7-0. Illinois rallied late but fell 12-8.

“We didn’t play very well,” Hartleb said. “(Friday), we pitched fairly well, and that gave us an opportunity to win. The other two games, we didn’t ever give ourselves a chance.”

Thursday’s series opener was tied 3-3 heading into the bottom of the fifth, when the Boilermakers’ Dan Black hit a three-run homer to give Purdue a lead it would never relinquish. Black finished the game 3-for-4 with five RBIs and two runs. Josh Parr led the Illinois offense, as he was 3-for-4 with a run scored. Designated hitter Willie Argo was 2-for-2 with a pair of runs.

In game two, Illinois grabbed an early lead when Argo hit a two-run double in the first inning. Strack took over from there, retiring nine of 10 hitters after giving up a leadoff triple. He improved to 6-0 on the year and gave up one run in the first, fifth and seventh innings, but Illinois had enough offense to take the lead into the ninth, when reliever Lee Zerrusen struck out Black with the bases loaded to end the game.

“I got ahead of guys, then from there I threw a lot of changeups and kept them off-balance,” Strack said.

The Illini never led in Saturday’s finale, a game that saw the Boilermakers score in seven of the eight innings in which they hit. Purdue’s four-run fourth inning was highlighted by designated hitter Drew Madia’s two-run home run, and second baseman Eric Charles went 4-for-5 and scored four times in the contest.

Sophomore Pete Cappetta led Illinois on offense, going 4-for-5 with a home run, two RBIs and two runs. Junior shortstop Brandon Wikoff was 3-for-5 with a run.

“We just couldn’t string together that many hits early,” Wikoff said. “We found ways to score runs, it just took awhile. That’s the way it seems to be (lately), we’ll score a couple here or there.”

Illinois has lost four of its last five games since a dramatic comeback to defeat Ohio State on May 8. The Illini entered the weekend tied with Ohio State in second place and a half-game behind Minnesota.

With the series loss to the Boilermakers, Illinois fell to fourth in conference, losing out on the coveted first-round bye in the Big Ten Tournament. The Illini must instead settle for a first-round matchup with Michigan State on Wednesday.

“We’re disappointed right now, but we got to get over it,” Strack said of the struggles against Purdue. “We got a chance … to get ourselves into the postseason.”