Illinois throws first no-hitter since 1985 in series sweep over Purdue

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Cameron Krasucki

The Illinois baseball team huddles during the game against Purdue April 17 at Illinois. The Illini swept the Boilermakers this weekend and threw a no-hitter in the series finale.

By Gabby Hajduk, Staff Writer

After getting trounced by Purdue twice at home less than a week ago, Illinois baseball fired back in West Lafayette, Indiana this weekend with not only a sweep of the Boilermakers, but with a no-hitter to cap it off Sunday. The 3-0 series win marks the Illini’s first weekend sweep of the season. 

Thrown mostly by junior Riley Gowens with the help of Ryan O’Hara and Cole Kirschsieper, the no-hitter is just the 11th ever recorded by the Illini, the first since 1985 and the first on the road in program history. For a pitching staff that has struggled to find consistency all season, finally hitting a turning point was more rewarding for Gowens than the no-hitter.

“No pitching staff wants to give up 20 runs, and no one wants to be 13-14, especially in a shortened season when you’re already behind the ball compared to other teams nationally,” Gowens said. “But losing 20-6, for our pitching staff, might’ve been the best thing for us. It was depressing for about a day or two, and honestly it’s still depressing to think about. But to come out here and have the chance to play the same team again after a week of preparation … and have pretty much every pitcher go out there and absolutely dominate. 

“It was the mindset, working on stuff during the week and then executing on game day. A no-hitter is sick and a sweep is sick, but hopefully today with all the momentum we built is a turning point for us.”

The no-hitter is no doubt the flashiest achievement of the weekend, but it’s only a slice of what the team accomplished against Purdue. Illinois dominated the weekend from the jump, beating Purdue 6-5 Friday, 12-4 Saturday and 1-0 Sunday. 

“We didn’t play well against Purdue last week,” said head coach Dan Hartleb. “They hammered us on Monday, and we turned around and came in with very good composure and played extremely well in every aspect of the game. We did a good job swinging the bats, we played outstanding defense, our starting pitching was really good and our bullpen was tremendous. I just thought guys had a good focus, and there was no panic.”

The Illini started the weekend strong Friday, as Andrew Hoffman started on the mound and gave up no runs and just one hit through six innings. In the meantime, the Illinois offense put up six unanswered runs. 

Kellen Sarver scored first for the Illini with a solo home run to right field in the second inning. Two more runs were tacked on in the fourth inning as Cam McDonald’s sacrifice bunt, combined with a throwing error, scored Justin Janas, who singled to right field two at-bats earlier. Sarver connected again to score Ryan Hampe, who was walked earlier in the inning. 

In the seventh inning, Nathan Aide started things off with a single and later scored off a double from Jackson Raper. Illinois’ fifth run came from Janas being hit by a pitch with the bases loaded. The team’s sixth run in the top of the ninth, a run batted in by Sarver, was a much-needed insurance run, as the Boilermakers scored five late runs off the Illini bullpen. Ryan Kutt was able to record the final two outs for the Illini, securing the 6-5 win. 

“We had the confidence where if we put up a couple runs, we knew our pitchers would keep us in the game,” Janas said. “Our pitchers were pitching really well this whole weekend. The confidence for our hitters just increased and really helped us because we knew we had backup behind us when we scored runs.”

The Illini came out stronger Saturday, as Branden Comia set the tone with a first-inning homer to left center. In the second inning, singles from Aide, Brody Harding and Taylor Jackson brought one run in. Comia ripped another single up the middle to score Harding and Jackson, then a single from Janas recorded the Illini’s fourth run of the inning, putting them up 5-0 after just two innings. 

Nate Lavender held things down on the defensive end, allowing no runs through five innings before giving up three runs early in the sixth inning. Alex Vera relieved him for just over an inning and allowed one more run before Ty Rybarczyk saved the game, allowing just one hit in the final 2.1 innings. 

Illinois’ offense continued to put up runs, scoring one in the seventh from a Sarver RBI. Three walks, combined with hits from McDonald, Hampe and Raper, allowed for six more runs in the top of the ninth inning, sealing the day two win. 

After hitting Purdue’s pitchers with ease early in the weekend, the Illini offense struggled Sunday to string together consecutive hits. Illinois’ first hit of game three was a single from Aide in the third inning, but it was followed by a walk, a sacrifice bunt, a strikeout and a flyout. 

Janas recorded a double in the fourth inning, but another three consecutive outs ensued. In the top of the sixth, Janas connected again for a single, but a double play ended the inning. 

Meanwhile, Gowens faced 22 batters through seven innings and didn’t give up a hit. While four walks gave Purdue chances to create momentum, Gowens continued to fool the Boilermakers’ with his breaking ball, as he struck out six batters.

With the score still tied at zero, O’Hara relieved Gowens in the eight inning and nearly gave up the go-ahead run. With a runner on third, O’Hara struck out the batter in the dirt, forcing Hampe to throw to first to get the out. After initially hesitating, Hampe threw a dart to Sarver at first base to get the out, but with the runner at third heading home, O’Hara swiftly got behind the plate. Sarver threw the ball right back home just in time for O’Hara to make the game-saving tag.

“It’s just baseball awareness,” Hartleb said. “We can try and recreate that play an entire practice and never have that exact thing happen. I’ve never seen that happen before; I’ve never seen that type of double play especially with the pitcher covering home. It’s an awareness. 

“It took a bunch of things to happen. Ryan Hampe blocked the tough pitch for strike three, comes up and throws a strike to first, then Kellen Sarver throws an absolute strike. Then you have the pitcher covering home, he had that awareness, he wasn’t just standing on the mound watching the play. There were so many things that happened there that were impressive. Just the awareness they had and the excitement it brought was awesome.”

Then in the top of the ninth, the Illini finally put together consecutive hits. Comia started off the inning with a single then advanced to second on a wild pitch. After initially showing a bunt while Comia was still at first, Janas was able to pull back and hit a single, advancing Comia to third. Then, Sarver laid down a sacrifice bunt, which led to a throwing error by Purdue, allowing Comia to score the game-winning run.

Kirschsieper then made his second relief appearance of the weekend to save the no-hitter and the series sweep, striking out the final two batters after a fielding error put a runner on base. 

“It was really nice today as a pitching staff,” Gowens said. “All year our hitters have been unreal. There’s going to be days where you can’t score, and their pitcher absolutely diced today, he looks really good. But for our hitters kind of struggle today and not get that many runs and for our pitchers to finally pick them up when they’re usually the ones picking us up is a really good feeling as a staff.

“It’s not a divided team at all, but it can’t be a good feeling as hitters when you’re putting up 10 runs a game and losing. So for us to be able to go out there and shove this weekend and show that we have what it takes and get a little confidence from the rest of the team and the coaches in us is a great feeling.”

 

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