CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Illinois’ offense finally woke up.
And then it fell asleep again.
Four first-inning runs were enough for Illinois to snap its season-long four-game losing streak with a 4-2 win over No. 19 Coastal Carolina at Illinois Field on Tuesday night, but the offense never did much again after that. Illinois’ offense stalled over its final seven innings as the Illini picked up their second victory over a ranked opponent this season (Feb. 16 at then-No. 20 Wake Forest).
With zero currently ranked opponents still on the 2019 slate, Illinois has potentially its last chance to earn a regular-season win over a ranked team on Wednesday night versus Coastal Carolina.
“We didn’t play poorly when we lost,” said Illinois head coach Dan Hartleb. “The game of baseball is tough, and we’ve done a lot of good things the entire season. We went out and just did a great job.”
After scoring only seven runs during the Illini’s four-game skid last week, the Illini poured in four in the first inning alone, highlighted by freshman second baseman Branden Comia’s second-career home run — a no-doubter two-run shot to left field.
The homer came just two days after Comia recorded the final out of the game with the bases loaded in Illinois’ final loss at Iowa, which Hartleb and Comia treated as a learning moment.
“After the game Sunday, me and Coach Hartleb text back and forth,” Comia said, “and he was just saying that especially with two strikes not to expand the zone. I skipped the slider and then just put my best swing on it.”
Three more singles, a wild pitch, and a fielder’s choice added three more runs to the inning’s total for the Illini’s biggest frame in over a week.
But then Illinois’ offense stopped producing runs.
Following the first-inning outburst, Illinois sent four or fewer hitters to the plate in six of the next seven innings, with the third inning — a single and a walk — the lone exception. Consequently, Coastal starter Anthony Veneziano worked six full innings, preserving the bullpen for Wednesday’s series finale.
Veneziano and relievers Alaska Abney and and Jay Causey retired 13 of 14 Illini from the third through the seventh innings until Illinois drew a pair of walks in the eighth. Grant Van Scoy’s flyout to the warning track stopped the Illini from adding any padding to the 4-2 lead.
Comia looked like he was in line for a big game after the homer, however, especially following a game-ending strikeout with the bases loaded at Iowa on Sunday. The freshman flied out to right in his next two at bats, which he said just felt good off the bat.
“My swing felt the best it has in my time here,” Comia said. “Even if I didn’t get the result I wanted, I got the feeling I wanted and that’s all I can ask for.”
Fortunately for the offense, Illinois’ pitching staff stepped up against a lineup that had eight batters with averages north of .300. Freshman starter Aidan Maldonado hurled four innings of two-run ball, before Josh Harris, Sean Leland, Quinten Sefcik, Ryan Schmitt and Garrett Acton threw five shutout innings out of the bullpen. The quintet finished the game allowing only two hits and striking out eight over five innings of work.
“When you come here, you look around and it’s basically, ‘You’re going to be competing for a spot,’” Harris said. “There’s no person in that bullpen who can’t get their job done or do a specific role at any given time. Maybe some days we’ll have a bad day, but that happens. It’s baseball.”
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Error Don’t Matter: Coastal Carolina only cut into its four-run deficit by one run in the third, but it was one swing away from the lead. With the bases loaded and two outs in the frame, Maldonado popped up cleanup hitter Zach Biermann, but catcher Jacob Campbell couldn’t make the catch in foul territory. The error didn’t come back to bite the Illini, as Biermann flied out to left to end the inning later in the at-bat.
“There’s a lot of things Aidan [Maldonado] continues to improve on,” Hartleb said. “In his other starts, he did not throw nearly as many competitive pitches, and he was around the plate a lot more tonight.”
Enter and Protect: JUCO transfer reliever Josh Harris relieved Maldonado with no outs in the fifth inning, and preserved Illinois’ two-run lead by working a Biermann lineout and striking out two.
TWEET OF THE GAME
There were some issues during his outing, but this still rings true. Give the kid three years at Illinois, and he’ll really be an ace.
#Illini starter Aidan Maldonado, who was drafted by the #Brewers last June, is passing the eye test for me early.— Stephen Cohn (@stephen__cohn) April 2, 2019
Wow. He's got stuff. Not many starters at this level that I've seen have gotten up to 93 consistently AND have movement.
Also, Alaska Abney:
This is a real person that I am currently watching pitch. pic.twitter.com/n2b7XFOkh1— Stephen Cohn (@stephen__cohn) April 3, 2019
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
Fans parked their cars in the left field grass on Tuesday.
Someone’s car may have a broken windshield after that 388-foot blast.
Despite being unable to play the field and man second base due to an injury, Michael Massey continues to produce at the dish.
Massey’s first-inning single extended his team-high 11-game hitting streak.
Grant Van Scoy also extended his six-game hitting streak with a first-inning one-bagger.
HE SAID IT
“It’s definitely a really nice feeling, especially after the weekend we just had. To get one back from these guys, and hopefully we can come out again tomorrow and do the same thing.” - Comia, on snapping the losing streak
Coastal Carolina, then No. 20, took the first matchup of the season against Illinois on March 1, 11-3. Now, the Illini got their payback.
And Illinois has a chance to win the season series rubber match Wednesday night at 6 p.m. CT on BTNPlus. Freshman Nathan Lavender (1-1, 5.40 ERA) will make his third of the season against the Chanticleers.
A sweep over a ranked team would help Illinois in the rankings entering this weekend’s Big Ten home-opening series versus Maryland.
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