CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Two weeks ago, after dropping five of their first six Big Ten games, Illinois looked dead in the water.
But after the Illini clinched a weekend sweep over Penn State with a 4-3 win on Sunday afternoon at Illinois Field, Illinois (25-13, 6-6 Big Ten) is back to .500 and primed to make a late-season run toward the NCAA Tournament. A solid start from Cyrillo Watson and timely hitting from Illinois’ stars helped the Illini secure their 14th win in their last 15 games against Penn State.
“We’re winning close games,” said Illinois head coach Dan Hartleb. “We haven’t shot ourselves in the foot a lot, just finding ways to be more productive.”
As was the case with the two opening conference series against Iowa and Maryland, the Illini struggled all weekend to put away the Nittany Lion (17-18, 1-13 Big Ten). After back-to-back one-run victories on Friday and Saturday, Illinois found itself in an early hole Sunday after Penn State strung together three hits and one run against Illini starter Cyrillo Watson in the first inning.
As Watson settled in after the opening frame and went a season-high seven innings, the Illini’s offense couldn’t get itself started against Penn State righty Kyle Virbitsky. Illinois plated a run without recording a hit in the third inning, and Zac Taylor smashed the Illini’s first hit for a home run leading off the fourth — just one pitch after he hit a foul ball over the left field wall.
“I actually got the foul ball a little more than I got the home run,” Taylor joked. “But just stayed in there and kept competing.”
GONE. @zactaylor15's sixth homer of the year.— Illinois Baseball (@IlliniBaseball) April 21, 2019
104 mph exit velo#Illini 2, Penn State1 | B4 pic.twitter.com/jvqrSChucC
Taylor leads Illinois with six homers, despite missing 14 games this season with an injury.
Illinois rallied for two more runs in the fourth off Virbitsky, but couldn’t capitalize on a bases loaded, one-out chance in the fifth inning against Penn State reliever Tyler Shingledecker.
The insurance would have helped Illinois when Penn State attempted to rally in the eighth inning. With runners on first and second, Grant Van Scoy tried to turn the 5-4-3 double play, but first baseman Kellen Sarver was ruled off the bag at first. Head coach Dan Hartleb argued the call, but to no avail, and Gavin Homer’s RBI single continued the inning and cut the deficit to 4-2.
Pinch-hitter Shea Sbranti blasted his first home run of the season to bring the score to 4-3 in the ninth inning, but junior Garrett Acton still preserved the lead and earned his Big Ten-leading 13th save of the season.
“Feels great,” Taylor said. “A big sweep there for us to help us get back on track in the Big Ten.”
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
No Hits, No Problem: Illinois tied up the game on Michael Massey’s sacrifice fly in the third inning — without getting a hit. Grant Van Scoy led off the inning by reaching base on a walk, before a fielder’s choice and a pair of hit by pitches loaded the bases for Massey.
The RBI was Massey’s 100th career RBI since joining the program as a freshman for the 2017 season.
No Hits (for a while), No Problem: As the Illini’s offense waited to wake up on Easter Sunday, Watson was able to keep Illinois’ deficit at only one. Following Justin Williams’ two-out single in the first inning for Penn State, the Illini’s junior retired 10 of the next 11 batters.
“We needed that,” Hartleb said. “As he got to the fifth, sixth, seventh inning, he started to really pitch and command his breaking ball early in the count.”
Dating back to his last start last Monday at Minnesota, Watson has hurled 12 innings and allowed 10 hits, two earned runs and struck out five.
“Even since Monday, everything has felt good,” Watson said. “Just been doing my treatments and keeping my arm feeling great.”
TWEET OF THE GAME
In a starting lineup that had the last names Bowersox, Hendershot, Homer, Shingledecker and Hippenhammer, Hutch Gagnon took the cake for the best name on Penn State’s roster.
In today's edition of "This is a real person that I am currently watching pitch." pic.twitter.com/GlHp2ONH1w— Stephen Cohn (@stephen__cohn) April 21, 2019
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
Hard-pressed to find a better second baseman in the country than Michael Massey.
That's easy for @mmass7219.— Illinois Baseball (@IlliniBaseball) April 21, 2019
Penn State 1, #Illini 0 | MID 1 pic.twitter.com/uwxYPLO7s2
Penn State’s first-inning run was only the fourth earned run allowed by Illinois in the opening frame this season. The Illini are outscoring their opponents 31-7 in the first inning in 2019.
HE SAID IT
“I feel pretty confident what’s going to happen with us the rest of Big Ten play.” - Watson, on the final month of conference games.
Illinois opens a five-game roadtrip on Tuesday night in Peoria against Bradley. The Braves outslugged the Illini in a 12-8 win last Tuesday.
The Illini will then continue Big Ten play in Lincoln with a three-game series against Nebraska starting on Friday night at 7:30 p.m.
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