Illini baseball stays hot, sweeps Michigan State

For the second time in as many days, Casey Fletcher stepped into the batters box with a chance to win the game. And for the second time in a row, he came through.

Just as he had done Saturday, Fletcher swung on the first pitch and singled to seal the game for the Illinois baseball team. Illinois (27-17, 13-5 Big Ten) swept Michigan State (24-20, 8-10) in the three-game series.

Fletcher finished with two home runs, five hits and five RBIs on the weekend, but he won’t be celebrating his successes as Fletcher has something else to do Sunday night. Study.

“I’ve got two finals on Monday,” Fletcher said. “That’s what I gotta do. 

“Sign language, and I’ve got a communications class. So I’ve got to study for those.”

When asked how he thought he played over the weekend, Fletcher shook his head in disbelief.

“I don’t know what’s going on,” Fletcher said. “I just keep getting put in spots to help the team win, and I came through today again.”

In all three games, Illinois and Michigan State exchanged runs and leads before the Illini eventually came out on top. The Illini won all three games by one run, taking the first and second game 5-4, with the second win coming in the 10th inning. Both teams exploded offensively in the third game, which Illinois won 10-9.

The Illini players and head coach Dan Hartleb echoed the sentiment that this was some of the most confident baseball the team had played all year.

“This is the most fight I’ve seen out of us the whole year, and it’s coming at a good time toward the end of the year,” junior first baseman David Kerian said. “That’s when we need it, going into the tournament.”

Illinois was led by a strong output on the offensive side of the ball, beginning with the opener Friday. The Illini struck first, scoring in the first and second. Michigan State answered with four runs of its own to take a 4-2 lead following the top of the eighth inning.

In the bottom of the eighth, Kerian helped lead the charge for Illinois with a two-run triple to tie the game. Later in the inning, Kerian scored the go-ahead run on a wild pitch by a Spartans relief pitcher.

“For me I feel really, really great out there,” Kerian said after Sunday’s game. “I’m playing hard. Everybody’s playing hard.”

Kerian was overshadowed by Fletcher on the weekend but finished with four hits and seven RBIs over the three games, stats that caught Hartleb’s attention.

“David Kerian was outstanding,” Hartleb said after Sunday’s game. “Five RBIs, drove some balls, and that’s good to see. The middle of the order is starting to do a really good job for us.”

The second game was more of the same, with both teams battling back and forth for the lead. Fletcher hit two solo home runs in the second and fourth innings. After four innings, the Illini and the Spartans were tied at three.

Michigan State scored again in the top of the sixth, but Illinois answered when sophomore catcher Jason Goldstein hit his second home run of the weekend, a solo shot to left field, to tie the game at four.

Both the Illini and the Spartans went scoreless for the next three innings before Fletcher came up big in the bottom of the 10th. Fletcher swung on the first pitch, a fastball over the plate, and singled down the left-field line with the bases loaded, scoring junior center fielder Will Krug to win the game.

On Sunday, Michigan State and Illinois combined for 19 runs on 28 hits, but in the end the outcome remained the same. Illinois came away with a 10-9 win on another Fletcher walk off.

For the first time in the series, the Spartans scored first, notching a run in the second. Illinois answered with a three-run third inning, but the Illini offense was then quiet until the seventh.

Michigan State tried to break the game open, scoring three runs in the sixth and another four in the seventh inning to give the Spartans an 8-3 lead.

The Illini answered as Kerian tallied three RBIs on a double to right center. Illinois scored four runs in the inning to bring the score to 8-7.

The Spartans tacked on another run in the top of the ninth to give Michigan State a 9-7 lead going into the last half inning.

The first two Illini reached base and junior Reid Roper drove in a run to pull within one.

Just as he had done the day before, Fletcher came to the plate with a chance to win the game. He swung on the first pitch and hit it into left-center. Both Matthew James and Roper scored and Illinois won the game.

“That’s the game of baseball,” Fletcher said. “You’ve got to come every time at-bat. Swing it with conviction, and I got an opportunity to come through again and I came through.”

Nicholas can be reached at [email protected] and @IlliniSportsGuy.