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Gerber makes history in Illini’s series-opening win over Nebraska

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Gerber makes history in Illini’s series-opening win over Nebraska

By Gavin Good, Staff writer

Illinois closer Joey Gerber made history Thursday night at Illinois Field, closing out a 5-2 win over Nebraska to tie the program’s single-season save record set by Tyler Jay in 2015.

Like many of his save situations this season, Gerber came in with a comfortable lead. He struck out two of the batters he faced, sealing the team’s 30th win of the year.

“It’s a really good feeling, honestly,” Gerber said. “It’s something I never expected to have happen, so it’s an honor and a blessing.”

Gerber shared credit for the landmark with his teammates. He said the Illini’s defensive proficiency is something he can rely on — the team has a  .980 fielding percentage, good for No. 11 in the country. He also said the team has put him in situations where he can just come in and focus on getting outs, thanks in large part to hitters’ ability to put up a lot of runs before he steps on the mound.

“Our offense has been incredible this year,” Gerber said. “Troike, Bren, they’ve all done really well, really the whole lineup is doing great. It’s nice to get comfortable leads so you know you can go out there and just do your job and perform.”

Starting pitcher Cyrillo Watson went four innings on the night, giving up two earned runs and six hits. He managed to strike out five batters though, getting the game back under control after a rough first inning. He gave up three hits, walked a batter and, combined with Grant Van Scoy’s errant drop at third, the Cornhuskers got off to a 2-0 lead.

Shortstop Ben Troike extended his Big Ten-leading on-base streak to 52 games in style. The sophomore blasted his fourth career home run over the left field fence in the bottom of the first inning, tying the game at two runs apiece.

Second baseman Michael Massey knocked one over the right-field wall in the bottom of the fourth to give Illinois a 3-2 lead. It was only the team’s second hit of the day at the time, both coming from the long-ball.

Sophomore right-hander Ryan Schmitt came in to relieve Watson in the fifth, going 1.1 innings while giving up two hits and striking out one of the five batters he faced.

The win moved Illinois to 30-17 on the year, adding to a 14-8 Big Ten Conference record. Illinois is currently tied with Ohio State for fourth, though the Buckeyes hold the tiebreaker advantage with their series win in Champaign earlier in the month.

“I thought we played solid everywhere,” Hartleb said. “One thing I was really pleased with was, you go into the series and we’re not going to throw our No. 1 (Snarskis), because of some soreness. We want to make sure he’s ready for the tournament. But the last thing you need guys to do is look up and say, ‘Well we’re not throwing our No. 1, we don’t have a chance to win’ or ‘we’ve got our backs against the wall’. Our guys did a really good job.”

Hartleb was pleased with how Watson came back to control the game after his troubling first inning. Watson’s recovery, along with solid showings from the bullpen allowed Illinois to coast after tacking on two more runs with two outs in the sixth on a pair of RBI doubles from left fielder Doran Turchin and right fielder Jack Yalowitz.

Gerber thanked the players around him for making it easier for him and other pitchers to maintain their composure. Having a proficient offense, as well as one of the most efficient defenses in the country, is a boost to pitchers’ confidence. 

“You’ve just got to be focused on the batter and the pitch you’ve got to throw,” Gerber said. “It helps having a good defense behind you, we’ve made plays all year. Everybody else makes the job easier.”

On Thursday night, his job was admittedly simple.

“That certainly helps setting the table for the ninth, all you’ve got to do is pitch one inning. Pretty good gig,” Gerber said.

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