In a game that was delayed a day due to rain, the Illini silenced the Notre Dame bats on a masterful pitching performance by starter Drasen Johnson to advance. His day got off to an inauspicious start when a costly walk and error put him in a bases-loaded jam in the first inning. He managed to work out of trouble after inducing back-to-back popouts to right field, but found himself in a similar situation the next inning with two Fighting Irish batters on base and only one out. He once again escaped with no damage by striking out his first two Notre Dame hitters. And that's when Johnson really started to find his groove. He would go on to strike out five over the next seven innings and, with the assistance of shortstop Adam Walton, who made a dazzling play in the fourth inning, ended up tossing a complete-game shutout. Here's another tidbit regarding Johnson's dominant outing:
SID extraordinaire @kentbrown says Johnson had a string of 5 outs on 8 pitches. Efficient.— Jeremy Werner (@WernerESPNCU) May 31, 2015
The Illini bats finally came alive in the fifth inning when Ryne Roper's double off of Irish starter Ryan Smoyer chased Will Krug home to make it 1-0. From there the orange and blue didn't look back. A single by Walton pushed the lead out to two and then Reid Roper's sacrifice fly made it 3-0 Illinois after five. There would be no further scoring after that, but three runs was all Johnson needed on the mound. He retired the side in order in the ninth inning to seal the victory and the complete game. Tyler Jay, one of the best relief pitchers in the nation, was warming up in the Illinois bullpen, but he was never needed.
1. Drasen Johnson
Despite his early struggles, Johnson managed to hurl a complete-game shutout on 107 pitches. He allowed five Notre Dame batters to reach base in the first two innings alone, but then went on to allow only three for the rest of the game. His overall ERA was lowered to an outstanding 2.01 and every single Fighting Irish player wash hitting under .300 by the end of the game. He also gave up just five hits and one walk over his nine innings of work.
2. Adam Walton
The Illinois shortstop was flashing the bat and the leather on Sunday. Hitting from the leadoff spot, Walton knocked in a key RBI in the fifth inning and also took a walk to raise his average to .291 for the season. He then made a spectacular leaping grab in the next half-inning to potentially save a Notre Dame run from scoring and preserve the shutout.
3. Casey Fletcher
Fletcher was the other key offensive player. He collected two hits in his four at-bats including a lead-off double that allowed him to score one of the Illini's three runs on Sunday. It went somewhat unnoticed, but Fletcher also made a fantastic and strong throw back into the infield in the bottom of the eighth to hold Irish left-fielder Ryan Bull to a single on what could have very well been a play that put him in scoring position.
Next up the Illini will remain in Champaign and play in the regional final tomorrow afternoon against the winner of tonight's Notre Dame-Wright State game, setting up a potential rematch against the Irish. Because they have yet to lose in the tournament, all Dan Hartleb's club needs to do is win one of their next two matchups to win their first-ever regional final and take another step towards Omaha and the College World Series.