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Illinois grinds way to 6-2 win, sweeps Ohio State

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Against the Big Ten's best pitching staff, a third consecutive game without a quality start put Ohio State in an insurmountable hole.

Hitting his Big Ten-leading 11th home run, Illinois senior first baseman led the Illini to a 6-2 win
Hitting his Big Ten-leading 11th home run, Illinois senior first baseman led the Illini to a 6-2 win
Chris Webb

The Buckeyes found them in a familiar hole, and in the end a familiar result.

Unable to capitalize on early opportunities, a quick 2-0 lead was squandered as Illinois roughed up another Buckeye starter before one more Illini left-hander shut down the Ohio State offense, Illinois scoring six unanswered runs en route to a 6-2 win in the series finale.

Sweeping the weekend, Illinois runs its school-record winning streak to 21 games, improving to 40-6-1 on the season, 16-1 in the Big Ten. After the weekend which grabbed national headlines, Ohio State looks to regroup, now 31-13 on the year, 12-6 in conference action.

"We came out sharp offensively, took good swings, got on Kravetz early," Ohio State head coach Greg Beals said of the Buckeyes scoring a run in each of the first two innings.

The Illini entered the weekend with a 2.31 ERA, fifth-lowest in the nation, and it appeared the Buckeyes were on their way to having their way with the Big Ten-leading visitors. But a double play in the bottom of the first halted an Ohio State opportunity, before a fluke play slowed their momentum in the bottom of the second.

After back-to-back singles from senior catcher Aaron Gretz and freshman DH Tre' Gantt opened the Ohio State second, a sacrifice bunt from junior shortstop Craig Nennig and sacrifice fly from sophomore second baseman L Grant Davis staked Ohio State to a 2-0 lead. Sophomore center fielder Troy Montgomery drew a walk and broke for second in the next at-bat. As Illinois junior catcher Jason Goldstein attempted to throw out Montgomery, the ball hitIllinois starting pitcher John Kravetz leading to Gantt being thrown out at home by Illinois sophomore third baseman Ryne Roper, who the ball perfectly deflected to.

"You can't get any more of a fluke play," Beals said. "You throw the ball, it hits the pitcher in the ankle and rolls right to the third baseman. I thought we had a chance to get three or four runs in the first two innings, and we didn't. "

Ohio State's momentum halted, it didn't take long for Illinois to seize it.

Leading off the top of the third, Illinois senior first baseman David Kerian hit his conference-leading 11th home run of the season to center field, the first hit Ohio State senior left-hander Ryan Riga surrendered on the day.

Kerian's blast started the Illini engine and it would be him who got it roaring.

Kravetz settling into a grove, the senior right-hander worked around a leadoff hit by pitch to Ohio State junior first baseman Troy Kuhn, keeping the Buckeyes from answering. In Illinois' next at-bat, the consensus top ten team took control of the game.

Similar to Ohio State's second inning script, Illinois took advantage of the inning's first two runners reaching base. A sacrifice bunt from Illinois sophomore DH Pat McInerney put two in scoring position before Kerian stroked a 1-0 pitch back up the middle, plating Goldstein and senior right fielder Casey Fletcher, giving Illinois its first lead of the game.

Ohio State ending Kravetz' day after four innings, 73 pitches, Illinois turned to senior left-hander Rob McDonnell. Normally their midweek starter, the Illini are without a midweek game the rest of the year, giving a dominant bullpen an embarrassment of riches. Entering in relief, McDonnell showed showed starter-stuff, beginning a four-inning outing with Kuhn the lone Buckeye to reach base, doing so via a throwing error from sophomore shortstop Adam Walton.

"McDonnell did a great job coming in, putting the water to the fire," Beals said of the Illinois fifth-year senior.

The Buckeyes continuing their struggles against left-handed pitching, McDonnell, Friday starter Kevin Duchene and closer Tyler Jay combining to pitch 14.1 innings, conceding only one run, Illinois put the game away in the sixth inning.

A Fletcher single to left opened the inning, Kerian putting two runners on board two batters later. An attempted squeeze allowed Illinois to double-up Ohio State at 4-2, Riga unable to make an on-target throw to Gretz on a bunt back to him by Illinois senior center fielder Will Kurg. A four-pitch walk loaded the bases in front of Walton pulling a single through the left side, driving in Illinois' fifth and sixth runs.

"The story for me is their offensive relentless," Beals said. "The fact every time we got in a bad count they hit the ball hard."

"They are a tough team to pitch to, that's lineup's tough," Gretz said. "It's never a 1-2-3 quick inning, they grind it out."

Riga's day done after six innings, Illinois tagged the southpaw for six runs, five earned off nine hits, drew three walks while striking out three times. A bright spot in the three-game skid was the Ohio State bullpen. Beginning with redshirt-freshman right-hander Adam Niemeyer throwing three innings of scoreless baseball Friday, the Buckeye bullpen pitcher, 10.2 innings of shutout baseball against Illinois.

But the bullpen dominance wasn't enough to overcome three starter failing to give the club a quality start.

"We have to get quality starts," Beals said as Ohio State falls 4.5 games behind Illinois in the Big Ten standings. "In the fourth, fifth, six innings, that's when the starting pitching wears down, a good offense figures it out."'

The final three innings saw the teams combine for four hits, capping a monumental weekend for Illinois as the Illini head back to Champaign-Urbana in position to receive a National Seed in the NCAA Tournament. For Ohio State, the Buckeyes have no time to look back, the team with two midweek games before facing another ranked team in the season's final home series against Illinois.

On the the team's post-game discussion, Beals said it was about moving forward, nothing was said of the weekend that was, the team's season goals still in tact.

"You get on the ropes, take some punches like we did this weekend, we have to bounce back. Hopefully we come out Tuesday night and take care of business like we're capable of."

Montgomery and Sergakis each collected a double with Montgomery stealing two bases to up his Big Ten-leading total to 29. Riga fell to 5-3 with the loss, right-handed relievers Seth Kinker and Trace Dempsey pitched the final three innings.

For Illinois, Kerian's 3-for-4, two-run, three-RBI day paced the club which reached 40 wins faster than any other Illini team. Walton went 2-for-5 with the sixth-inning RBIs atop the Illinois order, Fletcher and senior second baseman Reid Roper each added two hits.

Ohio State returns to action Tuesday night, a road contest against Miami University.