It was one of those midweek games where the Illinois baseball team was going to have to dive into its bullpen early on.
Senior pitcher Jackson Douglas received his first start of the season, but only lasted 2.1 innings after giving up two runs and having nearly thrown 60 pitches already. Freshman pitcher Ryan Kutt couldn’t bring consistency out of the bullpen, lasting only an inning after giving up three hits.
But the third time was the charm for Illinois head coach Dan Hartleb as he went to sophomore pitcher Zach Jones to take over the duties on the mound during the fourth inning while the bases were loaded.
Jones’ first pitch drew a double play to get out of the inning, a sign of what was to come out of the left-hander from Downers Grove, Illinois. Jones went 3.2 innings, allowing only one hit and striking out three at the plate while he was at it, and propelling his team to a 4-2 victory over the Illinois State Redbirds, Tuesday night.
“He got ahead in the count a lot. He did a really good job,” Hartleb said. “He went out and he was really effective, throwing multiple pitches for strikes, was able to pan both sides of the plate. He really gave us 3.2 innings of really strong baseball.”
Jones shut down the Redbirds, who were rolling at the time after getting a run in each of their last two innings at the plate. Illinois State was posed to put more runs on the board when Jones entered the game with the bases loaded, but Jones had other plans.
“My goal was to get the double play ball and that obviously worked out,” Jones said. “Worst case scenario was to just get two outs and let up as little amount of runs as possible.”
Run support came an inning later for Jones as junior first baseman Bren Spillane hit an infield single to allow junior third baseman Grant Van Scoy to reach home. A batter later, sophomore second baseman Michael Massey put his team ahead by two with a sacrifice-fly to left field.
Besides that at bat, Spillane struggled on the day, going 1-for-4 from the plate and striking out twice.
It was the bottom of the lineup that carried the load for Illinois. Juniors Jack Yalowitz, Michael Michalak, Jeff Korte and Van Scoy combined for four of six total hits, two of the four RBIs and three of the total four runs.
“The thing we have talked about from the beginning of the year was the fact that everybody needs to be productive for us,” Hartleb said. “One through nine (batters) we have guys that can produce and do produce.”
From that point on, it was all Jones as he gave the Illini two more shut out innings before he being pulled before the start of the seventh inning.
“I was able to locate my fastball in and out well and mix that in with a curveball and a changeup to strike the guy out,” Jones said. “I think my location was my best factor today.”
The rest of the Illinois bullpen picked up where Jones left off as junior pitcher Quinten Sefcik only gave up a hit in the eight inning and junior closer Joey Gerber came in and struck out two Redbird batters to pick up the save and win for Illinois.
This is the first of a nine game home stretch for the Illini as they will be welcoming in the Rutgers Scarlet Knights for a weekend series starting Friday night.
“I talk to our guys everyday about how we need to improve in every area,” Hartleb said. “We need to continue to work on moving runners... We just need to make solid contact.
“I talk to our guys from day one about how we need to be better each and every day.”