Free barbecue, 72-degree weather, 3,227 baseball fans and a first at Illinois field — beer — made it a perfect day to kick off a competitive weekend series between Illinois and the Ohio State Buckeyes.
And competitive it was as the Buckeyes took down the Illini, 6-5, in series opener.
But through three innings, it didn’t look like fans from either side were going to see a close ballgame.
Disaster struck in the third inning for the Illini, allowing five runs in the frame. The Buckeyes got runners practically at will and starting pitcher Andy Fisher couldn’t stop the bleeding once the hits started adding up.
After already giving up two runs in the inning, Fisher was only one out away from minimizing the damage, but a two-out RBI double from designated hitter Brady Cherry broke the game open and two more runs reached home.
“I thought we played well besides the third inning,” sad Illinois head coach Dan Hartleb. “We had an opportunity when they got their first two runners by throwing strikes on a bunt situation, and we didn’t do that... We talk about the little things all the time, in that situation we only give up two runs and it’s a much different ballgame.”
The Buckeyes picked up their fifth and final run of the inning after Fisher whiffed on a pick-off attempt to second, making it easy for the runner at third to reach home. Fisher only faced two more batters in the following inning before his night on the mound was over.
The Illini’s response didn’t come until the fifth inning when they cut a 6-2 deficit to one after notching three runs in the inning.
Shortstop Ben Troike hit his second home run of the season — while extending his on-base streak to 46 games — to start the scoring off for Illinois in the inning. After first baseman Bren Spillane was walked the following at bat, second baseman Michael Massey hit a triple down right field line to bring Spillane home.
Designated hitter Michael Michalak batted home Massey after he grounded out to first.
Ryan Thompson clutch in relief
After a very rough starting pitching outing from Fisher, the Illini desparately needed someone out of the bullpen to step up in relief, and Ryan Thompson did just that.
Thompson came in with two outs in the fifth inning and dominated the Buckeyes during his time on the mound, going 2.2 innings, giving up only one hit and striking out three of the 10 batters he faced.
“I was just trying to stay down in the zone, trust my cutter today to get me some at bats, some groundballs,” Thompson said. “Just trusting the gameplan we came into to get these guys out.”
With a packed house and excited Illinois fanbase behind him, Thompson said that kind of atmosphere is great to see and pitch in front of.
“You just got to love it,” Thompson said. “With that many people here, you just get that more amped up and it makes you want to perform that much more.”
Buckeyes closer dominates the ninth
Only trailing by a run heading into the ninth inning, the Illini were well within reach to turn the tides of this game and at least push it into extra innings.
But Ohio State closer Seth Kinker had different ideas, making easy work out of the three batters he saw.
“He just commanded two pitches and he had great command,” Hartleb said. “He moved balls to both sides in the zone and I thought we got some good swings off of him. Tough closers are hard to beat, and they got him in the game at the right time.”
Illinois will look to even up the series tomorrow at Illinois Field against Ohio State.
Hartleb feels that only one mistake was the difference between winning and losing this game.
“Just need to come out and play tough baseball,” Hartleb said. “We didn’t play poorly tonight, just one mistake hurt us. I’m sure (Ohio State) is over thinking ‘we stole one.’ The top part of our conference is so good, every game is going to be like this. You can’t make mistakes, we made one, they took advantage of it, they win the game. We got to do the same thing tomorrow.”