CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Illinois’ ace started this season in the bullpen.
After two years in the weekend rotation, pitching coach Drew Dickinson told junior Ty Weber that he would open the 2019 campaign as a reliever for Illinois — a role that Weber bought into.
“Starting off the year, obviously I wanted to be in the starting rotation,” Weber said. “I told Drew that whatever role he gives me I’ll accept and just go out there and do my best.”
Now, Weber is a critical part of the Illini’s rotation.
The right-hander nearly hurled his third-career complete game and received enough timely hitting from his offense for his first decision of the season — a 4-2 win over Illinois State (13-8) on Saturday afternoon at Illinois Field in Champaign. The Illini (16-4) clinched their fourth series win in four tries and have won their first five home games this season.
Weber’s biggest issue in 2019 has been his ability to keep the ball in the zone, walking 12 batters over his first 21 innings of work this season. But Weber retired the first 10 Redbirds on Saturday before Derek Parola lined a single to right field. Illinois’ starter also threw strikes on 74 of his 112 pitches, striking out five and allowing only five hits in 8.2 frames.
“I think with being three years in now as a junior,” Weber said, “you go out there with confidence that you’ve been here so many times before, and you go in knowing what you have and just go out there and execute it.”
Weber said he tried a new routine between innings Saturday, which included heading down to Illinois’ bullpen in left field when the Illini’s offense had one out each inning.
He even jogged down there prior to the ninth inning, where his ERA, which sat at 1.29 entering the afternoon, jumped to 1.52 after he surrendered a pair of two-out, ninth-inning runs.
“I think five pitches warming up isn’t enough, especially on a colder day,” Weber said. “I kind of changed some of my routines and wanted to stay fresh with my arm. I think that helped a lot with my command being a bit more sharp.”
Head coach Dan Hartleb said Weber’s ability to consistently throw strikes has allowed him to make the jump back to the rotation, and have outings like Saturday’s.
“His command is more consistent,” Hartleb said. “He’s down in the zone more. He’s really cut back on the walks and he commanded three pitches for a strike today.”
Garrett Acton relieved Weber and retired Tyson Hays to end the game.
Over his first three starts in 2019. Weber allowed eight total runs, but only three that were earned. Finally, his offense provided him enough pop and his defense did enough work to allow him to leave with the lead and earn his seventh career win. He even provided the defense himself, playing a pair of comebackers and starting a seventh-inning double play.
Freshman centerfielder Cam McDonald extended his career-long hitting streak to six games with a second-inning RBI single to open Illinois’ scoring. McDonald drove in his 15th run of the season with a single in the fifth inning.
“I’m just trying to help the team win, put quality at-bats together,” McDonald said.
McDonald’s second single drove in freshman second baseman Branden Comia, who recorded his second-career three-hit game. Comia scored again in the seventh inning on Michael Massey’s fourth double this year.
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Eight, Not So Great: Weber, who cruised through most of the afternoon, had to work out of trouble in the eighth inning. Illinois State, with one out, singled and drew its first walk of the day, but a pair of flyouts got Weber safely back to the dugout.
Nine, Not So Fine: Leadoff hitter John Rave opened the ninth inning with a single, but Weber’s chance at a shutout was still in tact with two outs in the ninth. Joe Aelits and Joe Butler changed those plans with a pair of two-out RBI base knocks to cut the deficit to 4-2.
Illinois missed the NCAA Tournament last season — maybe by as slim a margin as a game. The Illini also started 15-5 through 20 games in 2018.
But with Saturday’s win, Illinois sits at 16-4 after 20 contests. It’s the one game better, but this team is clearly more complete and dominant than last year’s squad.
“My first season is going pretty well,” McDonald said. “I like it. Hopefully they all go like this.”
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
No video broadcast of this game, so use your imagination when thinking of what Jeff Korte’s fourth-inning RBI double looked like.
And then just look at Jack Yalowitz diving home.
Look! There was video after all!
Here’s Massey’s seventh-inning double.
TWEET OF THE GAME
While the Illini weren’t able to turn two in the fourth inning, they were able to complete the task in the sixth. And it was pretty.
Comia to Troike to Sarver and the #Illini turned two.— Stephen Cohn (@stephen__cohn) March 23, 2019
HE SAID IT
“You look at a guy [Weber] who has been a starter his whole career, and all of a sudden he gets moved to the bullpen, all of a sudden you get a couple of choices. You can continue to work and have a great attitude and do what it takes to help the team win, which he did, or you can pout the fact you’re in the bullpen and go backwards. He’s worked to get better and better and he’s a much better pitcher today than he was a year ago.” — Hartleb, on Weber’s progress this season
Illinois will look to complete its fourth series sweep this season on Sunday at 12 p.m. CT at Illinois Field. The Illini have already swept Florida Atlantic, Grand Canyon an Southern Illinois over the past month.
“Bottom line, we’re a good team,” Hartleb said. “We play good team baseball. You try to make people beat you, and to this point this year we have not beaten ourselves very often.”
Sunday’s game was originally slated for a 1 p.m. start, but forecasted rain pushed first pitch to noon.
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