By the time the final out was recorded, you just knew one team was going to leave Illinois Field feeling deflated.
Jeff Korte did his best to make sure that team was not the Illini.
Illinois’ catcher, Korte set a career-high with four RBIs versus Rutgers in Friday’s series opener, including the game-winning hit in the eighth inning. With the game tied at 12, Korte roped a line drive to right field and drove Illinois right fielder Jack Yalowitz in, giving Illinois the 13-12 victory.
“I was hitting the ball pretty well all game,” Korte said. “I was ahead 1-0, and I was ready for a fastball, but (Rutgers pitcher Ryan Wares) looped a big curveball in there and I just couldn’t pass it up.”
But the wildness of the game started more than three hours before Korte’s eighth-inning heroics.
Zac Taylor entered Friday’s series opener versus Rutgers in the midst of an 0-for-13 drought.
Then the first-year Illini centerfielder took John O’Reilly’s second pitch of the game to left field for his sixth home run of the season.
And he set a tone for the night ahead.
The Illini sent 14 batters to the plate in the first inning, recording eight hits and scoring nine runs on O’Reilly.
A Bren Spillane bases-clearing triple and two-run homer by Korte highlighted the Illini’s opening frame, on the heels of a weekend series in Maryland where Illinois plated 15 total runs.
Spillane was pulled after his second-inning double in favor of Andrew Dyke. The Illini’s designated hitter — Rawling’s Midseason National Player of the Year — has been dealing with a nagging ankle issue.
“Personal health comes first,” said Illinois head coach Dan Hartleb. “He gave us everything he had, but when he was running, I would never put anyone out there in a situation where I think he could get hurt.”
Rutgers’ head coach Joe Litterio chose to not go to his bullpen early on in the series opener, and O’Reilly settled in after the first.
On the other hand, Illinois starter Andy Fisher was locked in at first, inducing two double plays in the first few frames, but the Illini struggled in the fourth.
After loading the bases with nobody out, centerfielder Jawuan Harris broke the shutout with a sacrifice fly to center. Doubles by Carmen Sclafani and Kevin Welsh cut the deficit to 9-4.
Fisher had the Illini out of the frame until third baseman Grant Van Scoy made his first error of the season, playing a grounder and throwing it to first base off his back foot. With Dan DiGeorgio at the plate as the frame continued, Fisher tried to pick off Mike Nyisztor, but it allowed Welsh, on third base, to sprint home and score under the tag. DiGeorgio drove in Nyisztor on a RBI single, forcing Illinois to pull Fisher after 3.2 innings and seven runs (four earned).
Rutgers plated three more unearned runs on Illinois reliever Sean Leland on a Harris double, a hit that came inches away from being his second home run of the season. Harris’ hit capped a 10-run frame for the Knights.
“I thought Fisher pitched well, but he just wasn’t rewarded,” Korte said. “It was a lot of weak singles and soft contact, and a series of unfortunate events.”
Designated hitter Milo Harris added one more in the fifth on a towering home run to left field, giving Rutgers the 11-9 lead.
“Bottom line is we’ve got to pitch with a lead,” Hartleb said. “Being behind hitter after hitter after hitter is not acceptable.”
After four silent innings, Illinois broke through in the sixth, scoring three runs and taking the lead on a single by Korte.
Rutgers tied it up in the top of the seventh on a Luke Bowerbank fielders’ choice.
Sophomore RHP Ryan Schmitt had one of his more dominant outings of the season out of the Illinois bullpen. Schmitt went three innings and allowed one earned run.
Ryan Thompson earned the win for Illinois after pitching a scoreless eighth inning, while redshirt-junior Ryan Wares picked up the Rutgers loss. Closer Joey Gerber recorded his 10th save of the season.
“Baseball’s a crazy game, and you see games like this all the time,” Hartleb said. “Our guys didn’t panic, we’ve been in this situation. Some teams would’ve quit, but our guys kept going.”
Illinois attempts to win the series Saturday afternoon against Rutgers. Quinn Snarskis gets the nod for the Illini, while Harry Rutkowski will be on the hill for the Knights.