Illini come back to win, Spillane drives in eight runs


Austin Yattoni

Illinois infielder Bren Spillane hits the ball during the game against Indiana State at Illinois Field on Sept. 24. Spillane has helped carry the Illini through a five-game winning streak.

By Gavin Good, Staff writer

Illinois freshman pitcher Ryan Kutt started all throughout high school. He was a regular on the varsity squad at Brother Rice for all four years, and he was an All-American as a senior.

However, it took until California State Northridge came to town a month into the season for Kutt to get his first career start.

It began smoothly.

Kutt had a 1-2-3 first inning, only dishing out seven pitches. In the second, Cal State took the lead as a result of an unforced error, and then they piled on some more runs off the youngster. Joey Cooper hit a three-run shot to help the Matadors score four in the third and jump out to a 5-1 lead.

Kutt’s night ended there, but his team responded with run support immediately in the bottom of the third, scoring four runs to level the score.

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Junior Bren Spillane hit a two-run double to cut the Matadors’ lead to two. The double was the first sign of what would become a career day for Spillane, who ended up breaking the game open in the sixth inning with a two-run homer, which made it 11-6 Illinois.

Spillane hit two home runs on the day, along with 8 RBI’s — the first time an Illinois player has driven in as many runs in one game since Chris Robinson in 2004.

The Wheeling, Illinois, native is batting .647 in his last four games and has racked up 14 RBI’s in the same timeframe. He was only two away from Bubba Smith’s single-game record of 10, which was set in 1991 against Illinois-Chicago.

If Spillane maintains his production rate from the first 17 games for the remainder of the season, even if it dips slightly, he will land somewhere in the top five all-time in RBI’s in a season. Josh Kilmek holds the record with 94 in 1996 and Brian Bock, No. 5 on the list, had 70 in 1981.

He currently leads the Big Ten in batting (.439), home runs (8), RBIs (29), slugging (.985) and doubles (10).

Boosted by Spillane’s production, the Illini closed the game out comfortably against Cal State with a 12-7 victory. The team moves to 12-5 on the season.

Head coach Dan Hartleb was comfortable with giving Kutt his first start. He knew his team had the firepower to be able to get back in the game even after going down 5-1.

“Second inning, we made an error behind (Kutt), and he ended up giving up a run and then got in a little bit of a jam in the third,” Hartleb said. “But I was proud of him, he went out and pounded the strike zone. He didn’t back down from anybody.”

Kutt is looking to improve his endurance as the season goes on.

“The one thing I know I need to improve on is getting my stamina back. Obviously, I struggled a little bit in the third inning,” Kutt said. “Throughout the year, throwing more and more, and just getting stronger in the weight room and keeping my body in shape will allow me to keep my stuff longer throughout the game.”

Hartleb praised Spillane’s performance but credited the team as a whole for being able to get on base.

“It’s fun to watch (Spillane), but the thing we can’t lose in the shuffle is that he’s got a lot of runners on base in front of him,” Hartleb said. “So that means the entire team is doing their job and driving in runs. It’s a team effort, Bren has done his job, as well as a lot of other guys.”

Spillane said his teammates’ expectations for him and itself have not changed despite his success.

“All of us as a group, we all know what we’re capable of,” Spillane said. “Since the beginning, everyone has had trust in everyone. No one is looking at me different.”

Illinois, ranked No. 24 by Baseball America and No. 22 by Collegiate Baseball Newspaper, is shifting its focus next to the beginning of Big Ten Conference play.

The team will head north to Evanston to take on Northwestern in a three-game series that will run from Friday, March 23 (3 p.m. first pitch) to Sunday, March 25. 

The Wildcats have struggled so far in 2018, starting the season 3-7, but have since won four of their last five and now sit at 7-8. Northwestern is coming off a week of rest after its 2-1 weekend series win over Central Michigan (5-15-1).

Hartleb thinks his team is in the right place mentally to prevail in Evanston this weekend.

“Our guys have been in a great frame of mind all year long, we’ve done a really good job of just taking it one game at a time,” Hartleb said. “These games are no different than the rest of the games we’ve played. We need to go out, we need to play at a high level and everyone needs to contribute and do their job.”


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