Fletcher’s bat leads way for Illini baseball in 4-0 week

Editor’s note: The Daily Illini sports desk sits down Sunday nights and decides which Illinois athlete or coach is our Illini of the Week. Athletes and coaches are evaluated by individual performance and contribution to team success.

It’s 3:00 p.m. on a bleak, grey Thursday, and Casey Fletcher is in the batting cage at Illinois Field.

Light rain falls as the 5-foot-11, 170-pound left-handed hitter, stands in the black netting of the cage hitting balls tossed to him by a teammate.

Each ball comes off the skinny-handled aluminum bat with the same familiar ping sound as Fletcher swings again and again.

Pitcher John Kravetz warms up in the bullpen to the right of the cage as Fletcher hits.

A day earlier, the Illini’s junior right fielder hit three home runs in a 10-1 rout of Southern Illinois. But he has already pushed yesterday’s performance from his mind. He’s in the cage 30 minutes before practice, hitting ball after ball. 

His three-homer performance has grabbed the attention of the local media. Their voices create a low murmur as Fletcher continues to swing. Fletcher stops hitting and steps out of the cage to answer their questions. After discussing the upcoming series with Michigan State and his recent power surge, Fletcher asks if he has time to get some more swings in before appearing on the local ESPN radio show. He has 15 minutes, so Fletcher walks back to the cage and begins his hitting regimen once again.

That’s how it goes for the hardworking, soft-spoken Fletcher. He never stops working because, as he said after Sunday’s game, he feels a constant desire to get better.

“There’s always room to improve,” Fletcher said. “Just when you think that you have it figured out, you don’t have it figured out. You always have to keep working. You have to keep striving to get better every day.”

Fletcher’s hard work in the cage paid off this week as Fletcher had four games for the Illinois history books.

It’s hard to overlook how impressive Fletcher’s week was. Fletcher finished the week with five home runs, 10 RBIs, two walk-off singles and he helped the Illini win all four games. Not to mention he went 8-for-17, took home the Big Ten Player of the Week honor and was one of the Louisville Slugger National Players of the Week.

“I’ve just been putting good swings on the ball,” Fletcher said. “And good things have happened. I don’t really even know what to say.

“I’m hitting it, and it’s going where they’re not at.”

Such as: over the outfield fence.

Although Fletcher might be oversimplifying things, his assessment of the offensive explosion is accurate. He’s been hitting the ball where defenders can’t get it.

His offensive surge started Wednesday at home against Southern Illinois. Fletcher belted three home runs all to the same part of right field after hitting a soft ground out in his first at bat.

Fletcher’s success continued over into the weekend, where he started slow on Friday with an 0-for-3 first game but bounced back on Saturday and Sunday tallying another two home runs in the second game of the series and game-winning walk off singles in both.

“It’s been a good week,” Fletcher said. “I don’t know what else to say.”

***

Fletcher grew up destined to play baseball at Illinois. His father, Darrin. and Darrin’s dad, Tom, both played ball at Illinois before reaching the majors.

Darrin still holds Illinois’s record for batting average in a single season (.497) and in a career (.392). He knows a thing or two about the offensive side of the game and has taught Casey ever since he was little.

The youngest Fletcher began playing baseball as soon as he could walk, and his family moved around with Darrin during his baseball career. The Fletchers lived as far as Montreal and Toronto, when Darrin played for the Expos and the Blue Jays. Through it all, Casey’s love for the game never wavered.

“It’s just been one of those things, ever since I was younger I’ve wanted to play baseball and ever since I could walk I’ve been playing,” Fletcher said. “I’ve never stopped playing. I’ve always had a desire to play, and it’s carried me to where I’m at right now.”

After Darrin’s MLB career ended in 2002, Casey and his family moved back to Illinois full-time.

Tee ball in Toronto eventually became high school baseball at Oakwood High School in Oakwood, Ill., where Fletcher really began to shine. His junior year, he compiled a 9-2 record, 2.02 ERA and 93 strikeouts to go along with a .516 batting average and the 2010 Danville Commercial-News Baseball Player of the Year. His senior year, Fletcher won an additional four games on the mound, batted .450 and had a chance to walk on to the Illini as a freshman.

After talking with head coach Dan Hartleb and his staff, Fletcher chose to go to Kankakee Community College for two years instead.

Hartleb encouraged Fletcher to go to junior college and get stronger, get a couple hundred at-bats, and knock out his prerequisites.

In his two years at Kankakee, Fletcher developed into a consistent hitter, tallying 127 RBIs in two seasons.

Fletcher came to Illinois prior to his junior season and both his father and grandfather couldn’t have been happier about it. 

“The decision was on my own,” Fletcher said. “It’s what I wanted to do. It was never them pushing me to go here. They love the fact that I wanted to come here, but it was never like I was forced to come this way.”

***

Before Fletcher’s first at-bat Wednesday, he walked over to his dad, who had been sitting near the dugout — not standing in his usual spot behind the Illinois Field bleachers — to get out of the cold, and jokingly told Darrin that he was going to “hit one out of here.”

The elder Fletcher watched Casey get jammed on an inside pitch and dribble a grounder to Southern Illinois’ third baseman.

After the at-bat, Darrin had a few words for his son. 

He said he has been telling Fletcher for years to take some chances at the plate. Fletcher listened to his father and coaches’ advice to open up the barrel of the bat, and he swung for the fences next time up to bat on that windy Wednesday.

“I’ve always thought that he’s had enough strength, especially here, that he could maybe hit some balls in the gap or a ball off the wall or maybe even a ball over the fence,” Darrin Fletcher said.

Fletcher got his chance in the third inning with a 1-1 count. With the wind blowing out to right centerfield, he got ahold of the third pitch and drove it to deep right center. The ball cleared the wall for his second home run of the year and Fletcher trotted around the bases unaware that he had just begun the greatest week of his baseball life.

In the bottom of the sixth Fletcher got his third at-bat and smacked another solo home run out of the park, this time almost directly over the Big Ten sticker on the right field fence.

Fletcher did it again in the bottom of the seventh, but this time he drove in an additional two runners. With runners on first and second, Fletcher swung and belted another pitch to right field for his third home run of the game.

After Wednesday’s game Fletcher didn’t overcomplicate what he thought of his offensive performance.

“I got pitches that I could pull and just hit it out,” Fletcher said.

Hartleb gave Wednesday’s game a special name because of Fletcher’s play.

“I guess it’s Casey Fletcher Day at the ballpark,” Hartleb said. “He had a great day. I thought he took very good swings.”

***

Fletcher doesn’t know how many more at-bats he’ll have as an Illini, so he’s trying to make the most of them. That’s what keeps him going, not following in his father’s or grandfather’s footsteps, but taking advantage of his opportunities.

“I’m just taking in everything,” Fletcher said. “I’m taking in every at-bat that I get because you never know when it’s going to be your last.”

It’s Saturday and Fletcher is at the plate in the bottom of the 10th inning. He’s already hit two more home runs, both solo shots, bringing his total for the week to five. Fletcher stands in the on deck circle rocking the aluminum bat back and forth on his shoulder. He stares out at the batters box where the Illini’s junior second baseman Reid Roper is batting.

The third pitch hits Roper who jogs to first and loads the bases with two outs in the inning.

The PA announcer says, “Now batting for the Illini, Casey Fletcher,” as the Diplo remix of “Drunk in Love” by Beyonce resonates through the speakers. The crowd cheers after hearing his name.

Fletcher steps into batters box. His walkup music stops and the crowd goes all but quiet. The Illini fans know what’s on the line in this at-bat and so does Fletcher.

With two outs Fletcher can either win the game for Illinois or the teams will move to the 11th.

With the winning run 90 feet away, Fletcher thinks to himself that if there’s a fastball anywhere near the plate, he’ll try to put a good swing on it.

Michigan State pitcher Jeff Kinley looks to his catcher for the signal. As he gets ready to throw, the Illini runners begin to move. Kinley hurls the pitch Fletcher was looking for, a fastball over the plate. Fletcher swings.

The ball pings as it leaves Fletcher’s bat. It’s a hard-hit grounder near the foul line that passes the outstretched glove of a diving third baseman and heads into the outfield.

At third base, Will Krug looks back at the ball to make sure it gets by the third baseman, then runs down the line and touches home, giving Illinois a 5-4 win.

The crowd is quiet for another half second before erupting into cheers. Screams and woos resonate from Illinois Field as Fletcher runs to first base holding a triumphant fist in the air as he does.

Once at first, Fletcher backpedals away from the base, spins and throws his helmet into the air in excitement. He yells, “Lets go!” before being engulfed by teammates.

“I’ve never had a walk-off hit like that,” Fletcher said after Saturday’s game. “So it feels very rewarding.”

When asked whether he values the walk-off or the home runs more, Fletcher’s answer comes almost immediately.

“The home runs didn’t mean anything if we didn’t come out with a win,” Fletcher said. “That’s why we play the game, to win. Individual accolades are awesome, but it doesn’t mean anything if we don’t come out with a win.”

In post game interviews Hartleb alters his statement from Wednesday.

“It’s Casey Fletcher week,” he says.

***

After Saturday’s game, senior reliever Ronnie Muck said if he were pitching against Fletcher he wouldn’t give him anything to hit.

“I’d probably walk him,” Muck said. “Or hit him. I definitely wouldn’t pitch to him.”

After starting Sunday 1-for-4 with two strikeouts and an inning-ending double play, Fletcher said he was down on himself.

“I had a base hit, but it was a little bit of a rough start for me today,” Fletcher said of his play offensively before his fifth and final at bat of the day.

With two outs and two runners on, the Illini down 9-8 in the bottom of the ninth, Fletcher stepped to the plate with a chance to cap off his week by playing the hero one last time.

The PA announcer introduced Fletcher and his name was met with some of the loudest cheers on the weekend as the 2,022 fans in attendance readied themselves to see what would happen next.

Kinley, the Spartan’s relief pitcher who had surrendered the walk-off the day before, was on the mound again.

With Reid Roper on second and Matthew James on third, Fletcher stepped to the plate with a chance to win the game.

“Yeah, I could hear everyone,” Fletcher said. “I started to get a little anxious. I was coming up and I was like, ‘Crap, I’ve got to get a hit here again.’ I started to get a little jitters and then once I stepped in the box I was ready to go.”

Fletcher stood in the box, rocking the bat back and forth in the air, listening to the low hum of the crowd talking about the possibility of another Fletcher walk-off.

Michigan State’s left-hander lifted his right leg and threw a first-pitch fastball over the plate.

Fletcher swung just as he had done the day before and lined the ball toward the gap between the center fielder and the left fielder.

There was no delay in the cheers from the crowd on Sunday. Almost immediately everyone knew what Fletcher had accomplished.

James scored standing up and Roper followed close behind him, sliding across the plate to give the Illini a 10-9 win and the series sweep.

Fletcher ran to first base with arms outstretched. After taking several steps towards second base Fletcher threw his helmet in the air as he had done the day before and was surrounded by teammates.

“I’m just ecstatic right now,” Fletcher said. “It’s unbelievable. Especially to get the sweep against Michigan State, it’s a great feeling.” Fletcher said before letting out a sigh of relief. “Another day.”

Looking back at Fletcher’s accomplishments, Hartleb again had to amend his statement from Wednesday.

“I hope it’s Casey Fletcher month,” Hartleb said.

Nicholas can be reached at [email protected] and @IlliniSportsGuy.