Despite an 11-19 record, the Valparaiso Crusaders have power implemented into their starting lineup. Six of its the nine batters entered Tuesday hitting above .270.
Valparaiso flexed that power throughout the midweek game against No. 25 Illinois, outslugging the Illini, 11-7, at Illinois Field.
The Crusaders’ offense went to work early, getting four runs on Illinois starter Ryan Schmitt before even recording an out. Junior and senior outfielders Blake Billinger and Giovanni Garbella gave their team back-to-back RBI singles to get the first two runs on the board.
“Tonight was just a matter of guys coming out here and putting their uniform on,” said Illinois head coach Dan Hartleb. “We had no intensity. We just played poorly... It was just one thing after another where guys just didn’t have their head in the game.”
A wild pitch from Schmitt allowed the Crusaders to grab their third run of the game and sent Schmitt back to the dugout in favor of sophomore pitcher Zach Jones out of the bullpen.
Junior outfielder Doran Turchin quickly cut the deficit to one after hitting a three-run home run to left-center field in the first. A few batters later, junior catcher Jeff Korte tied the game when he sent a ball up the middle, allowing junior outfielder Jack Yalowitz to reach home.
After both teams washed in the second, the Crusaders’ bats went back to work in the third and fourth innings, getting two-run homers from senior third baseman Chad Jacob and Billinger in each frame off Jones.
After only four innings of baseball, Valparaiso had eight runs on 10 total hits.
“(Pitching staff) pitched terrible,” Hartleb said.
The Illini only responded with a run in the bottom of third inning after junior first baseman Michael Michalak singled to left field, allowing Turchin to score.
Valparaiso added three more insurance runs in the seventh inning to make the deficit seem insurmountable for Illinois (23-9, 9-3 Big Ten).
Struggles on the Mound
All season long, the Illini have gone to their bullpen to claim the starts of their midweek home games. While the relievers don’t last longer than three innings at the maximum, the bullpen gave no consistency against Valparaiso.
“We were very poor on the mound,” Hartleb said. “There wasn’t one pitcher that came out and did a good job.”
Schmitt did not last through the the first inning, failing to record an out and giving up four runs on three hits and walking two Crusaders. Jones — one of the more consistent relievers out of the bullpen this season — went 3.2 innings, giving up four runs (two two-run homers) on six hits.
Junior pitcher Quinten Sefcik replaced Jones. Valparaiso put three more runs up on him in the seventh inning.
“We were behind on the count on a regular basis, and then being behind all the time, we didn’t throw quality pitches to get ourselves either back in or an advantage count,” Hartleb said. “If you’re behind in the count a lot, you’re going to get hurt, and we got hurt continuously tonight.”
The biggest play of the game for Illinois came in the first inning when Turchin hit his three-run bomb to left-center field. The home run was his eighth of the year, already matching his total from last season.
“Main thing for me is just laying off the stuff that is out of the zone and getting a pitch I know I can hit,” Turchin said. “Lucky for me, I got ahead in the count a little and knew I was looking for a certain pitch and got it.”
With slugging first baseman Ben Spillane out with an ankle injury since Friday, Turchin has picked up the load offensively for Illinois, but he’s making sure that he isn’t trying to do too much.
“For me, I don’t go up there thinking I need to hit a home run every time, I just want to go up there and have a quality at bat,” Turchin said. “I want to hit a ball hard and whatever happens, happens.”
Illinois will be hosting a weekend series against an 19-16 Grand Canyon team. The Antelopes have been lights out in the Western Athletic Conference, going 10-2 in conference play.
“We’ll practice hard on Thursday and hopefully we’ll come out in a right frame of mind,” Hartleb said.