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Illinois falls 5-1 in home series opener against Grand Canyon

The Illini bats couldn’t get anything going against the Antelopes pitchers.

Tom Jozefowicz

Illinois dropped its second straight game overall after falling 5-1 to the Grand Canyon Antelopes on Friday night.

After a disaster of a pitching performance against Valparaiso on Tuesday night, the Illinois pitching staff had a much better showing in the series opener.

Junior pitcher Andy Fisher gave a solid outing for the Illini, going 6.2 innings and allowing only two earned runs on seven hits while striking out two at the plate.

The Antelopes couldn’t get anything off Fisher through five innings. Fisher managed to keep the ball on the ground, but Fisher soon grew fatigued, and it showed in the sixth inning.

With runners on second and third, Fisher let a breaking ball get away from him and go wide right of catcher Jeff Korte. The wild pitch allowed Grand Canyon to tie the game up at one and a batter later take the lead, thanks to a sacrifice fly from junior third baseman Zach Malis.

“With runners on, we gave up some 0-2 hits just because they weren’t quality pitches,” said Illinois head coach Dan Hartleb. “Then we made some errors, which costed us some, so we just need to play cleaner.”

It didn’t get any easier for Fisher the next inning, getting pulled after allowing runners to get on first and third with two outs and having thrown 103 pitches.

Sophomore pitcher Ryan Thompson came in for relief of Fisher, but he gave up an RBI single to outfielder Quin Cotton, resulting in two runs for the Antelopes.

The Illini couldn’t respond the following innings. The closest they came to scoring was Korte getting to third with two outs. Junior third baseman Grant Van Scoy struck out and ended the seventh inning for Illinois.

Antelopes’ junior starting pitcher Jake Wong was dominant on the mound, going six innings and allowing one run on two hits and striking out three Illini batters.

“He’s one of the top pitchers in the country,” Hartleb said.

Grand Canyon added an insurance run in the ninth inning and proved to be too much of a deficit for Illinois to overcome.

Struggles at the Plate

The Illini only managed three total hits in the game, struggling to get anything really going against Antelopes’ pitching.

Despite this, Hartleb was pleased with the at bats his team had.

“I thought we had a lot quality at bats, we hit some balls hard, we just hit them right at people,” Hartleb said. “The first six innings, I thought we had a lot of quality at bats, and then we gave up the lead and their pitchers just came right at us.”

Illinois also couldn’t convert when it had runners in scoring position also, going 0-4 in that department.

Bren Spillane is Bren Spillane Again

Since injuring his ankle in a weekend away series against Maryland, junior first baseman Bren Spillane had to put his dominant season on hold for roughly two weeks.

Spillane tried to play on the ankle in the first couple of games after the injury, but just couldn’t find any comfort-ability at the plate, which usually resulted him being pulled from the game. Spillane missed the previous three games because of the ankle injury before he made his return against Grand Canyon on Friday.

And return he did.

His moonshot of a home run (408 feet) in the fifth inning reminded everyone why he was named the 2018 D1Baseball.com Midseason National Player of the Year.

“Got behind in the count a little, fought off a few pitches, then threw me that same curveball two pitches before and fouled them off,” Spillane said. “Then I saw it again and just didn’t miss it.”

Friday was the first time Spillane felt fully comfortable on the ankle since the injury occurred.

“Feels 100 percent, feels good and I’m excited to get going,” Spillane said.

What’s Next?

Illinois (23-10) will be back in action on Saturday when it continues its weekend series against Grand Canyon.

“I thought our guys came in with composure, and it’s just one of those games you lose,” Hartleb said.