Wild weekend keeps Illini baseball undefeated

By Peter Bailey-Wells

The Illinois baseball team accomplished something it hasn’t done in 10 years Sunday. The team finished a game in a tie. 

Due to travel restrictions, Illinois finished Sunday’s game in Fort Myers, Fla., against Florida Gulf Coast in a 4-4 nine-inning tie. The Illini rallied in the top of the ninth to tie the game after trailing 4-3 for three innings. 

The 1:30 p.m. game began just before 2:30 because Florida Gulf Coast and Fordham were playing on the Swanson Stadium field in a game that began at 11 a.m.

“We felt kind of rushed,” senior right fielder Casey Fletcher said. “It was actually a huge scheduling problem. They need to plan at least three hours for the game.” 

Second baseman Reid Roper was the star for most of the afternoon, but designated hitter Pat McInerney slapped a single through the left side to score Fletcher and tie the game. 

Illinois had gone ahead 3-1 by the end of the third inning, built on a pair of Roper RBI hits and a David Kerian solo home run. 

Junior Tyler Jay tossed 4 1/3 innings of scoreless relief after starter Rob McDonnell, reigning Big Ten Pitcher of the Week, surrendered four runs in just 4 2/3 innings. 

The opener Friday against Florida Gulf Coast was much easier. Senior Drasen Johnson threw seven strong innings for Illinois, giving up only two runs on four hits and striking out eight in the team’s 13-2 victory. Johnson was credited for his first win of the season, after the Illinois offense built a 10-run lead by the time he exited the game. 

Fletcher led the Illini with four hits in five at-bats — he finished with three RBIs and scored three runs himself. 

“He was playing team baseball and the hits just came,” Hartleb said after Friday’s game. “He has competitive at-bats every time up.”

After his performance Friday, Fletcher was again the hero on Saturday against Fordham, albeit unintentionally. Fletcher reached base four times Saturday, twice on walks and once on a hit-by-pitch that came at the most opportune time. 

With the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth and the game tied, a pitch nicked Fletcher’s foot and junior catcher Jason Goldstein scored the winning run to seal Illinois’ 7-6 victory. The ball originally appeared to be a wild pitch and Goldstein sprinted home, but the umpire ruled it a hit-by-pitch to seal the victory.

“It was weird, but a good kind of weird,” Fletcher said about the walk-off. “It actually ricocheted off my foot and that’s why the catcher couldn’t stop it.”

Saturday’s game had been a back-and-forth affair, with the Illini up 4-0 after two innings and up 6-3 entering the ninth. 

Senior starter John Kravetz gave up three runs and eight hits in 5 2/3 innings. Junior Cody Sedlock was tagged for three runs in the top of the ninth. Fordham tied the game on a two-run double and an error after Sedlock allowed three baserunners. Jay, who replaced Sedlock on the mound, committed the error on a flip from first baseman Kerian. Jay followed his mistake with two straight strikeouts and finished with the win when the Illini scored in the bottom of the frame. 

The Illini, who received votes in top-25 polls prior to the weekend, are the only undefeated team in the Big Ten. Now at 6-0-1, the Illini have equaled their best start to a season since 1986. In 2005, the last season the Illini tied a game, they won the Big Ten regular season title.  

Peter can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @PBaileyWells.