CHAMPAIGN — It had been 14 days since Reid Roper last pitched. Now, the double-duty second baseman was back on the mound, entrusted with the most important save of Illinois' baseball season to date.
"It's a must-win situation," Illini coach Dan Hartleb said. "If you let that one get away, you don't know how it affects (the team) mentally the next two weeks."
Not much pressure, huh, Reid?
Oh, and did we mention that this was the redshirt freshman's first collegiate save opportunity?
No worries. Roper required merely nine pitches to dispose of three Michigan State batters in the ninth inning Sunday, preserving an 8-6 victory at Illinois Field that salvaged the final game of a critical Big Ten series.
"We knew it was a huge game going in and we were trying to avoid the sweep, so I know it's on the line," said Roper, who has a 0.90 ERA in 10 relief appearances. "But, at the same time, I'm just going to go out there and have confidence in my stuff. And that's what I did."
With the win, Illinois moved back to .500 in the Big Ten at 9-9 and will enter the final two weekends of the conference race in a two-way tie for seventh place but only one game out of third.
Had the Illini lost, their task of getting into the six-team Big Ten tournament — even in a race as ridiculously balanced as this year's — would have been exponentially more difficult.
"I thought it was a must-win game," said Hartleb, pointing to the fact that that it represented a two-game swing for a UI team that otherwise would have been 8-10 with only six games left. "I didn't tell the players that. I mean, we told them it was very important."
The victory came on the heels of a tough-to-swallow extra-inning loss on Saturday — a game decided by an Illinois fielding error.
As they had in each of the first two games of the series, the Illini (26-21) scored first. This time, they kept adding on, building a 6-2 lead through five innings.
But the momentum quickly turned in the sixth when Michigan State catcher John Martinez — who entered in the fifth after starter Joel Fisher had allowed two passed balls — belted a three-run homer off reliever Luke Joyce to slash Illinois' lead to one.
One inning later, the lead vanished, the Spartans capitalizing on reliever Ronnie Muck's control problems (two walks, a hit batter, a wild pitch) to score the tying run without benefit of a hit.
"Everything wasn't perfect," Hartleb said. "The game was back and forth and our guys never gave in, they never got down. Something would go wrong — the game would get tied, whatever it was — and we found a way offensively to get going."
The Illini, who had played small ball all day while countering Michigan State's power (three homers), did so again in the seventh. Two singles and a walk loaded the bases with one out before pinch hitter Bill Charvat was hit by a pitch to force in the go-ahead run. Thomas Lindauer then lofted a sacrifice fly to extend Illinois' lead to 8-6.
Muck (1-0) and Roper took it from there, the former escaping a one-out, bases-loaded jam in the eighth when Roper started the Illini's nation-leading 63rd double play of the season.
"I almost made a change," Hartleb said when asked about the jam Muck got into in his second inning of work. "Then I thought, with his slider he'd give us a chance to get a ground ball there, and we're just fortunate it worked out that way."
For once, Hartleb's choice of a Game 3 starting pitcher worked out, too. Drasen Johnson, the third different Illini to open a Big Ten series finale this season, didn't make it through the third inning last Sunday in his starting debut at Northwestern. But, as he did with previous Game 3 starters Josh Ferry and Brian de la Torriente, Hartleb gave Johnson a second shot.
This time, the redshirt freshman showed he deserved a third, departing with one out in the sixth inning with the Illini leading 6-2.
"I definitely felt much more relaxed out there this time around," said Johnson, who entered the sixth with a five-hitter. "That first start, I was a little nervous, but this time around I was able to settle down and get it done."
AT THE PLATE
Illini center fielder Willie Argo hit .545 (6 for 11) in the three games against Michigan State to raise his season batting average 16 points, to .318. The senior belted three extra-base hits, including his first homer, and drove in four runs.
ON THE MOUND
David Garner, the reigning Big Ten Pitcher of the Week, won’t be nominated this week. The Michigan State right-hander allowed seven hits and six runs (five earned) in four-plus innings. Garner struggled mightily with his control, throwing three wild pitches, hitting two batters and issuing a walk.
Right fielder Davis Hendrickson, hitting .194 in Big Ten play, was not in the Illini starting lineup for the first time this season. After going 1 for 8 in the first two games of the series, the junior was replaced by freshman Will Krug (0 for 3). Hendrickson entered as a pinch runner in the seventh inning and played in right during the final two frames.
IN THE STANDS
Sunday’s game drew 1,294 fans, capping the third-largest attendance total for a series in Illinois Field history. The three games against Michigan State attracted 4,955 fans. The only larger series figures were 8,202 against Ohio State in 2009 and 5,820 against Michigan in 1990.
The Illini will focus on books, not baseball, this week as they take final exams. Then it’s off to State College, Pa., for a weekend series against Big Ten rival Penn State. It’s the second year in a row that Illinois will visit the Nittany Lions. Last season, the Illini went 1-2 in a conference-opening series in State College.