Illini baseball drops series to Michigan despite Johnson’s Game 1 gem

Kevin Johnson has been a stranger to the win column this season.

Often the victim of a lack of run support, Illinois’ No. 1 starting pitcher hadn’t picked up a win since Feb. 25, despite posting an ERA of 3.34 on the season and pitching seven or more innings four times entering his start this past weekend.

Johnson’s winless stretch finally ended Friday night against Michigan (11-23, 4-5 Big Ten) as the right-hander pitched a gem against the Wolverines, going the full nine innings and allowing only two runs while striking out eight en route to a 9-2 win for Illinois (12-19, 4-5).

“It was nice,” Johnson said. “To be honest, though, I go out to win a game regardless if I get the win or if somebody else gets the win, and my past four starts now we’ve all been getting wins.”

Teammate Pete Cappetta was glad to see his teammate get the win.

“He really deserves it,” the second baseman said. “He’s been pitching his butt off all year and we really haven’t been able to help him out. We felt really good about getting him that win, I mean he deserves it. He’s definitely our best pitcher.”

Johnson’s superb outing allowed the Illini offense a chance to work its way out of its midweek rut after head coach Dan Hartleb shuffled the batting order for the weekend in an effort to provide his team with a spark. Among other changes, Hartleb dropped a struggling Willie Argo from his leadoff spot down to the No. 7 spot and moved hot bat Brandon Hohl up two spots to the cleanup position.

“We had not been getting production out of the top part of the order so I wanted to make some changes,” Hartleb said.

Most of Hartleb’s moves paid off Friday. Cappetta, taking over as the leadoff hitter, went 1-for-2 with three walks and two runs, while Hohl stayed hot with two hits and three RBIs, leading the Illini to a six-run outburst in a fourth inning that blew the game open.

“I thought Pete Cappetta did a great job in the one-hole,” Hartleb said. “He got hit, he hit the ball hard, he got on base with walks, he was active on the base paths.”

But Illinois’ offensive potency was only temporary, as the Illini were shut out in the second game of the series, losing 3-0.

Illinois starting pitcher John Anderson threw a complete game, allowing only three runs, but was outdueled by Michigan’s Brandon Sinnery, who pitched a four-hit, complete game shutout. Cappetta and Hohl were two of only four Illinois players to reach base, as Sinnery needed to face only 29 hitters to record 27 outs in the game.

Despite the loss, the Illini entered the final game of the weekend with a chance to take the series and were up 5-3 entering the seventh inning, but starting pitcher Corey Kimes couldn’t hold the lead, allowing four runs in the frame.

Trailing 7-5, Illinois had an opportunity to salvage the game in the top of the ninth after Josh Parr and Cappetta walked and were advanced to second and third by Justin Parr’s sacrifice bunt. Parr scored when Casey McMurray singled to left field, but McMurray was thrown out attempting to stretch his hit to a double and Hohl struck out to end the game, stranding Cappetta at third.

“We’ve just been terrible on the base paths,” Hartleb said. “We have not played smart. We have not run the bases smart, run ourselves into crucial outs. We beat ourselves today in a lot of categories … We had a couple times we didn’t move base runners, then we turn around in a crucial situation in a game and terrible base running. So we absolutely beat ourselves.”

The loss capped a frustrating weekend for the Illini, who have not won back-to-back games since their five-game winning streak ended April 2.

“I just think as a team we haven’t really put it together,” Cappetta said. “I mean, when pitching’s coming through, the hitting’s not there and vice versa. It’s still kind of early in the Big Ten season so I mean, we haven’t got off to a great start yet, but we’re looking to turn things around.”