The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

Illinois baseball sweeps Penn State, reaches five-game win streak

Olivia McAfoos
The Illini celebrate a Drake Wescott home run on Feb. 28 vs. Eastern Illinois.

Illinois baseball (14-12) completed its second home series of 2024 in a sweeping fashion. The Illini put up 43 runs in three games, winning 14-10 on Friday and twice on Saturday, 17-6 and 12-8. 

“All along I thought we’ve been capable of this, we played tough teams early and got some guys that were frozen up mentally,” head coach Dan Hartleb said. “We were not in a good frame of mind, and guys went back to the basics and did a really good job of making an adjustment.”

Warm and sunny weather graced Illinois Field this weekend with a strong wind blowing, making for tough pitching conditions, which resulted in 20 total home runs. Hartleb and the Illini battled the Nittany Lions in their action-packed second Big Ten series of 2024. Scores show fairly comfortable Illini victories, but no wins came easily as Illinois fought back from multiple run deficits thanks to contributions from every bat in the lineup. 

Illinois struck first on Friday, putting up one run in the first inning and one run in the fourth, which was not answered until Penn State tied it up with two runs in the top of the fifth. The Illini responded with four runs in the bottom of the frame, capped off by a two-run homer from right fielder Ryan Moerman. 

The Nittany Lions picked up three runs in both the sixth and seventh innings but walked four Illini, including two with the bases loaded in the bottom of the seventh. Free passes combined with a double from Moerman gathered eight runs in the inning and an Illinois lead that was sustained for the remaining frames. 

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The Easter Bunny welcomed fans to Illinois Field and pumped up the crowd on Saturday. Illinois played nearly flawlessly in the field in the doubleheader, featuring a stud performance from senior shortstop Cal Hejza with multiple diving plays. Graduate catcher Jacob Schroeder stepped up behind the plate, cutting down two runners attempting to steal second base. 

Penn State took a six-nothing lead before the Illinois bullpen shut them down after the fifth inning which was ended by a hose piece from Moerman to erase a runner sliding into home plate. Bats were slow to start for the Illini, but a switch flipped after graduate second baseman Brody Harding went yard to ignite the Illini offense. Illinois went on to score 17 unanswered runs with 10 in the eighth inning to hit the slaughter rule. 

Back-to-back dingers were slugged by junior designated hitter Camden Janik and redshirt junior first baseman Drake Westcott in the sixth inning. Westcott homered again in the seventh, and the 10-run eighth inning featured a two-run blast from Schroeder and a three-run shot from Harding after Westcott was intentionally walked. Almost every Illini added to the action in the huge comeback victory. 

“I went in between games and just told the guys that each and every inning matters,” Hartleb said. “We fall behind in both games, and the offense finds a way to come back.”

In the second game on Saturday, the Illini fell into a 4-0 hole before cutting the deficit in half with solo shots from Hejza and junior third baseman Coltin Quagliano. Runs were traded as junior left fielder Vytas Valincius put another ball out for Illinois, with Penn State leading 5-4 after the fourth inning. Illinois held them scoreless in the top of the fifth before Schroeder blasted a two-out grand slam, putting the Illini in front. 

The Nittany Lions added two runs in the sixth inning, and the Illini responded with two of their own in the bottom of the frame to take a 10-7 lead before Penn State put one more on the board in the seventh. Laying out towards second base, Hejza flashed some leather and flipped the ball with his glove to Harding, who turned it to first, completing the ridiculous double play and saving two runs from scoring.

“You won’t see a better play in college baseball, or baseball, period,” Hartleb said. 

Schroeder left no doubts with his second home run of the game, the third of the day, a two-run shot to take a 12-8 lead that the Illini bullpen secured. Illinois has won seven out of their last eight games to turn their record around and begin living up to their potential as a top team in the Big Ten. 

The Illini hit the road for a mid-week matchup at Illinois State (14-11) on Tuesday evening before traveling to Minnesota (11-12) for a three-game conference series. 


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