Illinois closes out final homestand with series win over Penn State

Senior+Jackson+Raper+rounds+second+base+and+attempts+to+reach+third+during+the+game+against+Purdue.+The+Illinois+baseball+team+closed+out+their+final+homestand+with+a+series+win+over+Penn+State.

Cameron Krasucki

Senior Jackson Raper rounds second base and attempts to reach third during the game against Purdue. The Illinois baseball team closed out their final homestand with a series win over Penn State.

By Jared Ebanks, Staff Writer

Head coach Dan Hartleb was eyeing Kellen Sarver and his son Zak, who were waiting for the perfect opportunity to dump the Gatorade bucket full of ice water on their coach’s head, in his periphery, after Saturday’s win over Penn State.

Hartleb stepped right, faked out his players as ice splashed over the sides of the bucket and ran around home plate as he was doused with the ice-cold celebration.

“That’s not bad for an old guy, is it?” Hartleb said after going all out to prevent doing his postgame interviews completely drenched. 

Hartleb secured his 475th win as head coach with the Illini Saturday, moving him into second all-time in wins in program history. 

The Illini (21-20) faced off against Penn St. (17-23) this weekend in their final three-game series at Illinois Field. 

Fresh of a three-game win streak – after defeating No. 25 Indiana on Tuesday – the Illini picked up their fourth shutout win of the season on Friday.

The Illini’s only midweek game of the season saw the pitching staff take another significant step forward, striking out at least 10 batters in each of the three contests. 

Illinois struck first on Friday with a single from Nathan Aide that brought home Sarver. Freshman Cal Hejza launched his first career home run into left-center, scoring two and giving the Illini a 3-0 advantage through two innings.

The team’s home run leader, Jackson Raper (2-for-4, three runs batted in, two runs) showcased his versatility with a deep bomb to center field that bounced off the top of the wall for an inside-the-park homer. By the time the puzzled Penn State outfielder thrust his glove in the air claiming the out, Raper was already sprinting toward third then sliding home to push the lead to 5-0. 

The North Carolina native wasn’t done yet. In the bottom of the eighth, he sent the Nittany Lions packing, crushing his 10th home run of the season over the left field wall. 

Cemented Friday starter Andrew Hoffman (four hits, one walk, five strikeouts) was outstanding on the bump, throwing seven scoreless innings. The 6-foot-5 Plainfield, Illinois native has consistently given the Illini their best chance to win in his starting role on Fridays – the Illini are 8-2 in games that Hoffman starts. 

Saturday was a historic day for the Illini baseball program, as the team’s 14-8 win moved head coach Dan Hartleb into second place on the all-time wins list. Hartleb surpassed his mentor, former coach and Illini great Richard “Itch” Jones, with his 475th win in his 16th season with the Illini. 

Hartleb got a text before the game from Itch, saying ‘Get this out of the way, then go for the overall record.’ 

He praised his staff, players and supporters behind the scenes for the accomplishment. 

“I’ve had unbelievable assistants that do all the recruiting, get the right guys in here,” Hartleb said. “They do an unbelievable job at developing guys. It’s a team effort. Hundred percent a team effort.”

The Illini came out with a vengeance, taking all of two pitches to get a run on the board courtesy of Taylor Jackson (1-for-3, one home run, three runs).

Saturday evening’s offensive battle with the Nittany Lions was anchored by a career night at the plate for Kellen Sarver (3-for-4, two home runs, six RBIs, three runs). The Champaign native left quite the impression on Illinois Field with a career high six RBIs and his first multi-home run game. 

The five-run fourth inning was jump-started when Sarver blasted a grand slam, scoring four Illini runners and securing an early 10-3 lead. 

The Illini never trailed in their second contest against the Nittany Lions, tallying 11 hits, 14 RBIs and eight walks.

“For us to have worked our way back above .500 and playing at this level, I’m so proud of this group; it’s unbelievable,” Hartleb said. “There are many times that if you don’t have the right kids and the right type of mentality, they would have just cashed it in for the rest of the year. These guys are playing as hard as they can. They work as hard as they can every day in practice.”

The Illini fell short of the series sweep on Sunday, dropping the final game 13-4. 

After giving up three runs in the top of the second, Kellen Sarver (1-for-4, one home run, one RBI) continued his hot streak at Illinois Field with his third home run in his last four at-bats. 

Penn State got their turn to showcase the power of their bats Sunday afternoon, posting 12 hits, 13 RBIs and three home runs. 

The Nittany Lions would tack on an additional three runs in the fourth, placing the Illini in an early 6-1 hole. 

Jackson Raper (2-for-4, two hits, 3 RBIs, one run) would respond in the bottom of the fifth with a three-run homer, giving the Illini some life and pulling them closer to 6-4. However, the Nittany Lions wouldn’t be denied winning one game in the series, as they added four runs in sixth inning, seemingly putting the contest away for good.

The Illini (21-20) win their final home series 2-1 with just one weekend to play in the season. Illinois will travel to Piscataway, New Jersey next weekend to face Rutgers (19-22) for its final series of the season. 

 

@JaredEbanks

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