Illini blank Indiana State in home opener.
CHAMPAIGN — Perhaps Rob McDonnell can finally stop holding his breath. Maybe he doesn’t need to keep his fingers crossed any longer.
The pain in the Illinois left-hander’s oft-troubled pitching arm at long last appears to be a thing of the past.
“Absolutely,” McDonnell confidently said after throwing five shutout innings Tuesday afternoon at Illinois Field as the Illini rolled to an 8-0 victory against Indiana State in their home opener. “(Last) summer, fall, winter, coming into the spring, I felt pain-free. Arm’s felt good, so I’m happy.”
That’s something the redshirt junior hasn’t been able to say since before he arrived at the UI in the fall of 2011. After injuring his pitching arm as a high school senior, McDonnell underwent the so-called Tommy John surgery — an elbow ligament-replacement procedure — the following summer and was sidelined for all of his first college year.
In the two seasons that followed, McDonnell’s attempts to get back to normal were met by recurrent setbacks. In 2012, he made two starts before being shut down with forearm tightness. Last season, the same problem arose, and he ended up being limited to 72/3 innings before being forced to rehab some more.
“A couple times I thought like, ‘Am I going to be healthy again?’ ” McDonnell said. “But I got a couple MRIs, and it always said your arm is fine. My forearm would tighten up a little bit and that’s really what the problem was, so I knew my elbow was fine.”
Now, everything’s fine, and the Barrington native was dandy against the Sycamores in his fourth career start for Illinois.
After giving up a one-out double followed by a walk in the first inning, McDonnell retired the next nine batters and did not allow another hit until there were two outs in the fifth.
McDonnell left the game after that inning, having reached his pitch limit. As it turned out, the Sycamores (14-3) could do little with McDonnell’s 67 deliveries, 43 of which were strikes.
McDonnell limited Indiana State to three hits and struck out a career-high six batters. The 6-foot-2 lefty’s reward? The first victory of his college career.
“It’s great to see a kid persevere like that and come out and throw a great game,” Illini catcher Jason Goldstein said. “I’m so happy for him — a kid that’s battled through.”
Truth be told, there wasn’t much advance notice that this kind of dominant performance was coming. In McDonnell’s first appearance of the season in mid-February, he failed to retire either batter he faced before being removed.
“His first outing was terrible, and he’ll tell you that,” Illini coach Dan Hartleb said.
When McDonnell got another opportunity seven days later, he made the most of it, pitching one shutout inning.
Then McDonnell waited more than three weeks for his next chance. When it arrived Tuesday, he set the tone as Illinois (8-9) earned a much-needed win after losing five of its previous six games.
“I thought he was very good (Tuesday),” Hartleb said. “Nerves maybe to the first hitter or two but worked his way out of the first inning and then he was really sharp.
“I think he’s capable of throwing that way on a regular basis.”
If so, a pitching staff widely regarded as this Illini team’s top asset just got stronger.
“It’s great to see him back at full strength,” Goldstein said.
AT THE PLATE
Illinois catcher Jason Goldstein had a career day while extending his hitting streak to nine games. The sophomore went 3 for 3 with a double and his first home run as an Illini. His three RBI were a college career high, and he scored three runs.
ON THE MOUND
Starter Rob McDonnell and four relievers combined to throw the Illini’s second shutout of the season. The first occurred Feb. 28, when sophomore left-hander Kevin Duchene went the distance while holding then-No. 23 Florida to three hits in a 6-0 UI win.
IN THE FIELD
Sophomore left fielder Ryan Nagle helped preserve Illinois’ shutout by throwing out Derek Hannahs at the plate in the fifth inning as the Indiana State second baseman was trying to score from second on a single. The assist was Nagle’s third from the outfield this season.
IN THE FIELD II
The Illini turned a season-high three double plays. Sophomore Adam Walton, making his fifth start of the season and first at shortstop, was involved in two of them and started the third DP with a remarkable diving stop of a grounder to his left.
The Illini will face Xavier at 4 p.m. Friday in the opener of a four-game series against the Musketeers at Illinois Field. Duchene (2-1, 1.70 ERA) is the Illini’s scheduled starter. Xavier is 11-6 entering a game Wednesday at Ohio State.