Illinois baseball wraps up 2022 regular season with sweep over Penn State

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Infield/Outfield Cam McDonald swings the bat at the home plate during a match against Maryland on May 7, 2021. McDonald performed a homerun alongside a game winning performance resulting in a 7-4 victory on Saturday during the Big Ten game at Penn State.

By Ben Fader, Staff Writer

This weekend, Illinois visited University Park for a regular-season finale against Penn State, having another chance to prove themselves for NCAA Tournament consideration. They did just that, sweeping the Nittany Lions and earning the No. 4 seed in the Big Ten tournament along the way.

Per usual, the Illini offense paved the way to victory, totaling 32 runs in the three games, taking the pressure off of the pitchers. The offensive explosion began early Thursday, in a game where the Illini would finish with 18 runs on the scoreboard.

Jacob Campbell wasted no time as the junior roped a double in the first inning to give the Illini an early lead. Sophomore Danny Doligale singled to right for two RBIs, and junior Branden Comia brought everyone home with a home run to cap a six-run second inning.

The Illini continued to add to the lead in the third as Doligale and Comia hit back-to-back RBI singles. Junior Cam McDonald joined the action with a sacrifice fly before a bases-loaded walk put the Illini up 11-0 after three.

After four scoreless innings, sophomore pitcher Cole Kirschsieper ran into trouble in the fifth, and the Nittany Lions went on a big scoring run of their own. Five runs in the fifth and two in the sixth shrunk the Illini lead to four, and Penn State seemingly held all of the momentum in the game. 

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    Relying on veterans, the Illini responded as Comia added on to his stellar day with an RBI double. 

    The pitching for the Nittany Lions began to fall apart in the latter portion of game one, and the next six runs were scored via a sacrifice fly, ground outs, walks, and wild pitches.

    An 18-hit performance set the tone for the weekend and an 18-7 game one victory.

    The Illini were able to get a much better pitching performance in game two, and the offense was able to break the game open late. 

    A Brody Harding single to left in the second scored one as the sophomore put the Illini up first once again. Sophomore pitcher Riley Gowens gave the Illini six innings of two-run ball on Friday night and left with a one-run lead after three Penn State errors led to two Illini runs in the fifth.

    A bases-loaded groundout for the Nittany Lions tied the game in the eighth and would force the game to extras after a scoreless ninth. 

    Only one extra inning was necessary as McDonald took matters into his own hands with a two-RBI double in the tenth. He then scored on a wild pitch to put Illinois up three before Harding demolished a ball to right to make the final 7-3 after a scoreless half from Penn State.

    The Illini used another late push to survive at University Park for game three and proved they can score when they need to win games.

    McDonald picked up right where he left off in game two, giving the Illini a 2-1 lead with a big home run to left. A Doligale single to center retook the lead for the Illini for just one half-inning as the Nittany Lions tied the game for the second time. A bases-loaded groundout knocked in yet another run for Comia on the weekend, but once again, the lead was short-lived, and Penn State tied it with a triple in the seventh.

    A three-run ninth put the game out of reach after sophomore Cal Hejza hit a sacrifice fly, and Comia provided the insurance with a two-RBI single to make the score 7-4, and it would stay that way. The sweep continued to build momentum for the Illini late in the season, as they have won nine of their last ten games.

    “It was a big weekend for us, the boys are really coming together,” McDonald said. “Confidence is high, and we think we are one of the best teams in the Big Ten.”

    The Illini will need players to step up in big moments if they want to win in the postseason, and McDonald believes that he and others are capable.

    “I definitely feel confident late in games and in big situations and not letting the moment get too big,” McDonald said. “I don’t know for sure I’m gonna get a hit, but I won’t let the pressure overwhelm me.”

    The Illini return to action Wednesday, against No. 5 Michigan to open the Big Ten tournament at Charles Schwab Field Omaha in Nebraska. When asked about the team’s game plan heading into the tournament, McDonald didn’t skip a beat.

    “We want to win it.”

     

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