Dittman's Walk-Off Homer Gives Illini Big Ten Title

Teammates mob Matt Dittman after his walk-off home run gave the Illini a share of the Big Ten title.
Teammates mob Matt Dittman after his walk-off home run gave the Illini a share of the Big Ten title.

May 21, 2011

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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - Casey McMurray drew a two-out walk in the bottom of the ninth and Matt Dittman crushed a two-run, opposite-field walk-off home run to complete a three-game sweep of Indiana with a 7-5 victory on Saturday, giving Illinois a share of the Big Ten championship, its first Big Ten title since 2005. The Illini finish the Big Ten season 15-9 and share the title with Michigan State after the Spartans dropped a 6-5 decision to Northwestern on Sunday, but Illinois will be the No. 1 seed in next week's Big Ten Tournament because of its series victory over MSU earlier in the season.

"That guy got me the other night, but for some reason, I had a good feeling going into the at bat," Dittman said of his home run. "I've been struggling for most of the season, but I'm glad that I was able to come up and contribute. It's been a goal of ours since we've been here (to win a Big Ten title). We said it at the beginning of the year and things didn't look too good, but halfway through the year we kind of figured it out and now we're here."

It has been an incredible sprint to the finish for Illinois, which has won 13 of its last 17 games, including 11 of its last 14 Big Ten games. The Illini stood at 12-21 overall, 4-6 in the Big Ten, after losing the first game of the series against MSU on April 23, but rallied to their current 25-25 overall mark.

"Wes Braun did a great job the last two innings and I really wanted to score that last inning because we were getting into the meat of their order," Illinois head coach Dan Hartleb said. "I just thought that if we could win it in that situation, it would be perfect. Casey McMurray had a very, very good at bat to draw the walk and then Matt Dittman gets a pitch up and just smoked it. I'm as proud as I could be of these guys. It's a great finish to a home season and a way to roll into a Big Ten Tournament."

The Illini won all three games against the Hoosiers in their last at bat, with a walk-off home run by McMurray on Thursday and a walk-off blast by Dittman on Saturday. Illinois scored two runs in the bottom of the eighth on Friday to take a 13-12 victory and the Illini out-scored Indiana by only four runs in the series, but came up with clutch hit after clutch hit in the three-game set.

The victory gives Illinois its fifth-straight series win and sixth series victory in 2011, both school records. The win also extends the Illini's winning streak to five, tying their longest this season with a five-game streak from March 19-April 1.

Illinois grabbed a lead in the second inning when McMurray led off with a double to right-center and Dittman lashed a single to right. Center fielder Willie Argo grounded to shortstop and Dittman was put out, but he beat the double-play relay thrown and McMurray scored to give the Illini a 1-0 lead.

Indiana DH Alex Dickerson blasted a solo home run to right-center in the top of the fourth, breaking a string of nine consecutive hitters retired by Illini starter Corey Kimes and tying the IU career home run record, to bring the Hoosiers and Illini into a 1-1 tie.

In the fourth, Dittman drew a two-out walk and Argo was ruled safe on a bang-bang play at first when he hit a slow grounder up the middle that second baseman Micah Johnson gloved and threw to first. Right fielder Davis Hendrickson then ripped a single through the right side, scoring Dittman to push the Illini ahead 2-1.

Hoosier center fielder Justin Cureton knotted up the score in the fifth with a solo homer to left-center with two outs but Kimes settled down to retire Dustin DeMuth for the third out as Indiana tied the game, 2-2.

Second baseman Pete Cappetta led off with a base hit to left-center and DH Justin Parr singled to right. Cappetta was put out at third on a close play on catcher Adam Davis' grounder to shortstop and third baseman Brandon Hohl walked. McMurray lifted a sacrifice fly to center that drove in Parr and gave Illinois a 3-2 lead.

Indiana tied it in the sixth after Kimes walked two hitters around a double to load the bases. Will Strack relieved him and walked the first hitter he faced on four pitches, forcing in a run, before striking out the next hitter. He then induced a pop-up to Parr at shortstop for the second out and Parr made a diving play to his right and threw to second for the final out of the inning, keeping the game tied, 3-3.

Illinois threatened in the sixth when Argo drew a leadoff walk but he was caught stealing. Right fielder Davis Hendrickson struck out but Parr walked and Indiana brought in closer Ryan Halstead. He stole second and then Cappetta walked, but Justin Parr flew out to deep left for the final out of the inning.

But Indiana grabbed its first lead of the day in the seventh when Strack gave up a walk and a base hit to the first two hitters he faced. He got the first out on a sacrifice bunt and loaded the bases with another walk. Luke Joyce relieved Strack and got Dickerson to hit a sacrifice fly to deep center field but Hoosier first baseman Jerrud Sabourin singled to center to drive in another run. Joyce coaxed another fly-out to center to escape the inning as IU took a 5-3 lead.

Davis hammered the first pitch he saw from Halstead in the seventh off the scoreboard in left for a solo homer, bringing the Illini within 5-4. Indiana changed pitchers, bringing in third-string catcher Dylan Swift. Hohl ripped the first pitch he saw, but Cureton corralled it on the warning track for the first out. But McMurray hammered a 3-2 pitch over the scoreboard in left field for his second home run of the weekend, tying the game at 5.

Wes Braun came on to pitch the eighth inning and retired the Hoosiers in order on a liner to Hendrickson, a strikeout and a groundout to Hohl. But the Illini went down 1-2-3 in the bottom of the eighth as the game went to the ninth, tied 5-5.

Braun required only nine pitches to retire the Hoosiers in the top of the ninth on a deep fly-out to Argo, a groundout to Parr and a groundout to Cappetta. Davis grounded out to second on a 3-2 count to start the bottom half and Hohl lifted another deep fly ball to the left of center field, but Cureton was there to record the second out. McMurray drew a five-pitch walk, though, and Dittman fouled off the first pitch before crushing an 0-1 fastball for his second home run of the series, this one a two-run walk-off job that gave the Illini a share of the Big Ten title.

Dittman led the offense, going 2-for-3 with a homer, two RBIs and two runs. McMurray was 2-for-3 with a homer, two RBIs and three runs, and Argo went 1-for-2 with an RBI, two walks and a steal. Davis also went 2-for-5 with a solo homer, giving Illinois six home runs for the series.

Joyce tossed 2/3 of an inning of scoreless relief and Braun was masterful in his two-inning stint, striking out one while retiring all six hitters he faced.

In the series, Dittman hit .600 (6-for-10) with a double, two home runs, five RBIs and six runs for a 1.300 slugging percentage and .692 on-base percentage. Argo hit .444 with an RBI, two runs and two steals, and Josh Parr hit .375 (3-for-8) with a triple, two RBIs, three runs and a steal while making a number of incredible plays in the field.

The Illini receive a first-round by in the Big Ten Tournament and will take on the winner of Wednesday's game between No. 4 seed Ohio State and No. 5 seed Minnesota at 7:05 p.m. on Thursday at Huntington Park in Columbus, Ohio. The game will be televised live on the Big Ten Network.