Illinois baseball falls short at Big Ten Tournament

By Masaki Sugimoto

The first game was a struggle for the Illini. They faced Nebraska for the third time this season. Junior Kevin Duchene got the nod against Nebraska’s Chance Sinclair.

Nebraska scored two runs in the sixth inning, but the Illini answered right back with two runs in the bottom of the inning.

In the eighth inning, designated hitter Pat McInerney drove in the game-winning RBI. In the ninth, the Illini brought in Tyler Jay to close the game, and he did so in seven quick pitches. The save was Jay’s 13th this season.

“He attacks the strike zone, and he spots up a lot of pitches,” catcher Jason Goldstein said of Sinclair’s outing. “He throws three pitches for strikes. It’s knowing his stuff and what it does. Knowing what it does is what counts.”

The win was Illinois’ 27th straight, which sets a Big Ten record.

The record stopped there, however, as the Illini dropped their second tournament game to Maryland, 2-1. Maryland relied on an excellent performance from their freshman right hander Brian Shaffer.

Shaffer gave up a run in the first inning but then settled in and kept the Illini scoreless for six innings. Illinois didn’t muster up much offense except for an RBI off the bat of Goldstein. Maryland’s win dropped Illinois into the loser’s bracket.

Despite the loss, the team had an optimistic tone after the game.

“We’re 27-1 in our last 28,” head coach Dan Hartleb said after the winning streak was broken. “Anyone in the country would take that, including me.”

Illinois went up against Michigan State, the only team that had beaten the Illini in Big Ten regular season play this year, in their next game.

The Fighting Illini bounced back from their first loss in roughly two months with a very strong performance. Senior John Kravetz threw all nine innings to receive a complete game shutout victory. Goldstein added to his RBI total once again, plating Illinois’ only two runs in the third inning.

“There’s not much I can say beside, ‘John Kravitz,’” Hartleb said after the game against the Spartans. “He was outstanding tonight. (He) picked us up when we needed a big win in his first complete game as a college pitcher.”

The Illini would reach the semifinals, where they faced off against third-seeded Michigan. Michigan got ahead early with two RBI’s from Jacob Cronenworth.

The Illini answered in the fourth and fifth innings to tie the game at two apiece. Michigan responded with three runs in the sixth inning to propel them to a victory and eventually the Big Ten Championship – the Wolverines defeated Maryland in the final.

“The only thing I’m really disappointed about is (that) we have a couple older guys that had poor body language,” Hartleb said. “What happened in the last couple days is really good for us because it’s going to allow a couple of us to refocus.”

The next step in Illinois’ historical season is the NCAA baseball tournament. The Illini will be the sixth overall seed in the tournament and will host the Champaign regional. The teams Illinois will host are Ohio, Wright State and Notre Dame. This marks the first time that the Illini have ever hosted an NCAA regional.

“This is the most fun I’ve had playing baseball my entire life,” Duchene said. “These guys find a way to get the job done, there is a lot to persevere in. That’s the name of the game.”

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