Coming into Tuesday’s matchup against Southern Illinois, Illinois had dropped six out of its last nine games and lost its two previous midweek games.
It was only a matter of time before the offensive juggernaut Illini team that dominated earlier in the season would emerge, and they did just that in Tuesday’s 9-1 win over the Salukis.
The victory improved Illinois’ record to 26-14 and, according to Illinois head coach Dan Hartleb, his guys came out more relaxed.
“There were some things we talked about on Sunday and some things we worked on in practice and the guys held sort of a team meeting. I think the gist of it was ‘relax,’” Hartleb said. “We’re a good team and you go through ups and downs throughout the season and it was just an opportunity for them to relax, go out and play very hard.”
Southern Illinois struck first in the game after picking up a run in the second inning, but that lead was short lived.
Illinois picked up three runs in the third inning to take the 3-1 lead. Third baseman Grant Van Scoy and outfielder Jack Yalowitz started the inning off with back-to-back hits and, one batter later, first baseman Bren Spillane batted Van Scoy home with an RBI double right up the middle.
Yalowitz advanced to third off the hit and was soon drove in by second baseman Michael Massey’s sacrifice-fly to right field. Spillane snuck home on the play when the Salukis committed a throwing error trying to get Spillane out at third.
An not converting with the bases loaded in the fourth inning, the Illini broke the game wide open in the fifth, picking up five runs.
Designated hitter Michael Michalak started the scoring when he singled to left-center field to bring Spillane home. Then the ball started to sail out of Illinois Field.
Outfielder Doran Turchin hit a three-run bomb to left field to clear the bases for Illinois. This homer was then followed up with another when outfielder Zac Taylor hit a liner (104 m.p.h. off the bat) out of the park to put his team up 8-1 through five innings.
A RBI single from Turchin the next inning added the ninth run of the game.
Illini bullpen came to play
It’s been no secret that the Illinois bullpen has struggled significantly in these midweek matchups. Hartleb called his team “terrible” after its performance against Valparaiso on April 17.
But the bullpen got different praise out of Hartleb after a dominant performance against the the Salukis.
“We went out and pitched extremely well,” Hartleb said. “Worked some guys that are young and scuffled; they continued to work and improve and they had really good evenings. It was very good all the way around.
Pitcher Cyrillo Watson got the start on the mound and he was not flaunting an impressive stat line coming into the game. Watson had a 0-1 record and 5.68 ERA before he went three innings, giving up only two hits, an unearned run and struck out four at the plate.
“Everything was really working for me,” Watson said. “Everything felt good coming out of the hand, everything felt smooth... In my bullpens I had really been working on mechanics, trying to smooth everything, make it more simple for me to get my arm out and make it on time with everything. Tonight that really worked out for me.”
Five more Illinois relievers saw action against Southern Illinois, none of whom gave up a run. Reliever Zack Jones came in for relief for Watson and went two innings, giving up zero hits and striking out two.
The Illini bullpen retired the last 20 Salukis’ batters before a two-out walk in the ninth inning, issued by closer Joey Gerber.
Turchin had solidified that fifth spot in the Illinois lineup earlier in the season, but Hartleb decided to go a different route with dropping him to sixth in favor of Michalak against Southern Illinois.
Turchin’s batting average entering the game was .234 and should see a nice bump after a 3-for-4 performance at the plate with four RBIs, highlighted by the three-run homer in the fifth inning.
“Made just a couple of minor adjustments for the most part, just tried hitting balls hard,” Turchin said. “I knew I hit it well, but I knew I definitely didn’t get it all, didn’t get underneath it, the wind definitely helped me.”
The Illini have a huge weekend ahead of them when they welcome in the Ohio State Buckeyes for a weekend series that may have postseason implications attached to its name.
“It’s more about just being composed. We’ve gone through a two-and-a-half week period where guys have tried too hard,” Hartleb said. “You can’t try too hard, you can’t rush things. Tonight, we just showed more composure at the plate and on the mound.”