Illini Out-Slug #23 Minnesota, 15-10
April 17, 2009
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - Illinois scored 14 runs from the fourth through the seventh innings to come back from a 6-1 deficit against No. 23 Minnesota and defeat the Gophers 15-10 in front of 1,045 fans at Illinois Field. Third baseman Dominic Altobelli (Oak Forest, Ill.) fell a triple short of the cycle, going 3-for-5 with a homer, a double, a career-high five RBIs and three runs, and center fielder Joe Bonadonna (Buffalo Grove, Ill.) went 4-for-5 with two runs.
Reliever Lee Zerrusen earned his first save of the year with 2 2/3 shutout innings as Illinois improved to 3-2 against ranked teams this year. The Illini's 15 runs marks the fourth time in the past seven games that Illinois has scored in double digits. That also marks the most runs Illinois has scored in a Big Ten opener since defeating Penn State, 20-11, last year in a game that began on Friday and concluded on Saturday.
The teams have altered the remaining games of the series and will play a doubleheader on Saturday beginning at 1 p.m. because of the strong probability of rain on Sunday.
"Our guys battled tonight," Illinois coach Dan Hartleb said. "We bounced back well from a couple of bad games this week and got back to doing the things offensively that we do when we're playing well. We were aggressive in counts and hit a lot of balls hard."
Illinois moved into a tie for first place in the Big Ten with Ohio State at 7-3 in the Big Ten and the Illini improve to 22-10 overall. Three Illini hitters blasted home runs, marking the first time since May 5, 2008, that three different Illini hitters homered in the same game. Freshman Willie Argo (Davenport, Iowa) hit three home runs earlier this season against then-No. 1 LSU to mark the most recent three-homer game for the Illini.
Minnesota (22-11 overall, 6-3 in the Big Ten) got on top in the second when right fielder Michael Kvasnicka hit a leadoff home run down the left-field line for a 1-0 lead. The Gophers proceeded to load the bases on a single and a pair of walks, but Illini starter Phil Haig (Inver Grove Heights, Minn.) induced a grounder to Matt Dittman (Libertyville, Ill.) at first base to retire the side.
Illinois tied it up with a run in the second when Altobelli ripped a leadoff double and moved to third when Minnesota starter Chauncy Handran's pickoff attempt squirted away from shortstop A.J. Pettersen. Two outs later, right fielder Pete Cappetta (Lisle, Ill.) sent a single back up the middle to drive home Altobelli and tie the game at 1.
But the Gophers regained the lead in the third on second baseman Derek McCallum's line-drive homer to left-center for a 2-1 advantage. Minnesota tacked on four runs in the fourth on six hits - five singles and a two-run double down the right-field line to go up 6-1.
After Haig worked around a one-out single in the fifth, the Illini bats went to work against Handran. Argo led off with a single up the middle and second baseman Josh Parr (Chillicothe, Ill.) was hit by a pitch. Bonadonna beat out a bunt single to load the bases and left fielder Casey McMurray (Willow Springs, Ill.) lined a single through the left side to drive home Argo. Shortstop Brandon Wikoff (Peoria, Ill.) walked to force in Parr and Gopher center fielder Eric Decker dropped Altobelli's fly ball to allow Bonadonna to score. Johnson grounded into a double play, bringing home McMurray, and Dittman singled to right to score Wikoff and post the Illini to an 8-6 lead.
Haig gave up a leadoff single to open the sixth but got a ground ball and struck out the final two hitters, running his strikeout total to a career-high seven. The Illini responded by putting three more runs on the board for him in the bottom half. With one out, Bonadonna walked and McMurray doubled down the left-field line to put runners at second and third. After an out, Altobelli singled to left, plating the two runners, and advanced to second on the throw home. Johnson brought him around with a bloop base hit down the right-field line to push the Illini lead to 11-6.
Minnesota battled back in the seventh with a leadoff walk, back-to-back singles and a three-run triple over Bonadonna's head in center. Zerrusen relieved Haig and gave up a sacrifice fly to DH Matt Nohelty but got a line-out to end the inning with the Illini clinging to an 11-10 lead.
Illinois responded with four runs of its own in the bottom half when Argo drew a leadoff walk and Parr singled to left-center. Bonadonna dropped down a beautiful bunt just to the left of home plate and beat it out for his fourth hit of the night, his first four-hit game since April 20, 2008, at Minnesota, loading the bases. McMurray grounded into a double play that scored Argo and Wikoff walked to put runners at the corner. Altobelli then stepped to the plate and blasted a 1-0 pitch deep to left-center for a three-run home run that extended the Illini's lead to 15-10.
Zerrusen allowed a leadoff infield hit when McCallum cued a ball off the end of his bat toward third base and beat it out. But the sophomore hurler fought back with consecutive strikeouts, including winning a 10-pitch at bat against Kvasnicka, and a groundout to finish the frame. He gave up a one-out double in the ninth but coaxed a flyout and Altobelli made a nice play on a softly hit grounder to end the game.
In addition to the big nights by Altobelli and Bonadonna, Johnson was 2-for-4 with a homer and two RBIs and McMurray was 2-for-5 with a double, two runs and an RBI. Dittman stayed hot, going 2-for-5 with an RBI, and Wikoff reached base three times, going 1-for-3 with two walks, a homer, two RBIs and three runs. Zerrusen also starred in closing out the game, slamming the door on Minnesota with 2 2/3 shutout innings, allowing only two hits and no walks with a pair of strikeouts, getting eight outs on only 38 pitches with 28 strikes.
Up Next: Illinois and No. 23 Minnesota will square off in a doubleheader Saturday at 1 p.m. because of the strong probability of rain on Sunday. It will mark the third Big Ten doubleheader the Illini have played this season despite the series format changing to three nine-inning games.