CHAMPAIGN, Ill. League-leading Illinois scored three unearned runs in the ninth inning to snatch the first game of this crucial series with Ohio State, 5-4, before more than 5,000 fans at Illinois Field.
Ohio State led, 4-2, after another fine outing from Alex Wimmers, who pitched 7.2 innings and appeared to have the win after closer Jake Hale got out of a runners-on-second-and-third jam in the eighth inning.
Ohio State had been unbeaten entering the ninth inning with the lead this season at 30-0. Hale got the first out of the ninth, but then walked Pete Cappetta to bring Willie Argo, the tying run, to the plate. Argo reached on an error. Then pinch hitter Mike Giller reached on another infield error to load the bases, bringing up Joe Bonadonna. Two-run single to left center to tie the game. The next batter, Casey McMurray, then laced a sharp single to right to win the game and send the record Illinois crowd into a joyous celebration, topped off by fireworks that the Buckeyes had to watch because the place was too crowded with people to make leaving an option.
The loss dropped Ohio State two games behind Illinois and one-and-one-half behind Minnesota, which was taking care of business at Michigan. Heading into Saturday play, Illinois is 15-4, Minnesota is 14-4 and Ohio State is 13-6 with just five Big Ten Conference games to play. Overall, Ohio State is 34-14 and has lost four consecutive games.
This was Ohio State’s game. Michael Stephens hit his third home run in two games a two-run shot in the first inning to give the Buckeyes a quick, 2-0 lead. Also scoring on the play was Cory Kovanda, who had singled.
Wimmers kept Illinois in control through the first four innings, not allowing a man to reach base while facing the minimum 12 batters. But Dominic Altobelli led off the fifth with a home run to right that cut the lead to 2-1. The home run ended two amazing streaks for the talented Wimmers: 15.1. hitless innings and 14.2 scoreless innings.
Illinois threatened with a man on second and two out in the sixth, but Matt Streng made a nice play to his left to stab a Brandon Wikoff liner and make the unassisted play at first for the final out of the inning.
The Illini came right back in the seventh, with back-to-back, two-out singles by Matt Dittman and Cappetta to put runners on first and third. But Wimmers reared back and struck out Argo, the .348-hitting freshman with 11 home runs, swinging on a 3-2 count. Whew!
Ohio State extended the lead in the eighth. Stephens reached after getting hit on his right shin. Dan Burkhart then went opposite field to left center for his ninth home run of the season and a 4-1 lead. The two RBI were Burkhart’s team-leading 52nd and 53rd of the year.
With the intensity of the game rising with every pitch, Illinois bunched three hits together in the eighth to score a run, making it 4-2, and prompting Ohio State coach Bob Todd to the mound to relieve Wimmers.
So in came Hale (0-1) with runners on second and third and two out. His first three pitches to Aaron Johnson were balls, but Johnson swung at the fourth and Tyler Engle hustled to make a play behind the mound and throw Johnson out to end the inning.
Winning pitcher John Anderson (1-2) worked a scoreless ninth, setting the Illini up for a ninth inning that will probably never be forgotten by their players or the huge crowd on hand. There’s a Big Ten championship at stake, after all, and the home team took a big step toward it tonight. There are two more games left to be played in this series, though.
Game Notes and Random Thoughts from the Press Box: