CHAMPAIGN — Perhaps Matt Milroy finally has found his niche on the Illinois pitching staff.
Of course, when the junior right-hander consistently throws strikes, it probably doesn't matter whether he starts or relieves. Either way, he can be a batter's worst nightmare.
Milroy fit that description to a T Sunday, entering in the third inning of a chaotic Big Ten series finale at Illinois Field and slamming the door on an Indiana lineup that had scored five times in the first two innings.
In five innings of relief, Milroy shut out the Hoosiers on three hits while striking out a career-high 10.
By the time the Batavia native departed after the seventh, the Illini led by six runs en route to an 11-6 victory.
"The difference in the game was Matt Milroy," UI coach Dan Hartleb said. "Probably the best I've seen him over (an extended) period. He's had flashes of one or two good innings but has not been able to sustain that over a five-inning period."
When Milroy was summoned from the bullpen, the mound was the most dangerous spot on the field. Indiana starter Luke Harrison, who failed to retire any of the four batters he faced, and Illini starter Josh Ferry each were knocked out early as both teams racked up five runs in the first two innings.
"It was back and forth, back and forth," Illini left fielder Justin Parr said. "Once Matt came in, hats off to him. He pitched the game of his career so far. He was unbelievable today."
It didn't take long to see that Milroy (1-3) might be poised for something special. In his first inning, he struck out three. He repeated that trifecta feat in the sixth inning.
Milroy, who recorded at least one strikeout in each of his five innings, became the first Illini to strike out 10 batters since junior Kevin Johnson fanned 11 in March 2011.
"I just felt like I got in a groove," he said. "In the past I've struggled with location, but today I was kind of on."
A 2009 draft choice of the Boston Red Sox out of high school, Milroy always has been a highly regarded prospect. What's held him back, however, is his battle with control. Entering Sunday, in nine previous appearances this season, he had walked 18 batters and hit eight in 19 1/3 innings.
"He's got a great arm," Hartleb said. "He's been his own worst enemy as far as ... just hurting himself with walks and hit batters. But when he goes out and throws strikes, he's tough because he's tough to pick up. Very good velocity. A sharp breaking ball."
Milroy wasn't perfect against Indiana. He walked three and hit a batter. But of the 91 pitches he threw, 58 were strikes. And as his strikeout total attests, he overmatched the Hoosiers when he threw the ball across the plate.
"Early on it was the slider, and that's what it usually always is," Milroy said of his best weapon. "And then, kind of when they started gearing up for the slider with two strikes is when we went to the fastball later on."
The Marmion Academy graduate stretched his streak of scoreless appearances in relief to four games.
Considered starter material since he arrived at the UI, Milroy made the 10th and 11th starts of his Illini career earlier this season. In those games, he went 0-2 with a 9.45 ERA.
But in eight relief appearances this year, he now is 1-1 with a 2.55 ERA.
Despite the wide disparity in those numbers, Milroy says he's open to any role.
"I like high-pressure situations so I guess that would be the thing that would say I'm better at relieving, but I don't have any preference," he said. "I really look at it as any way I can help the team, and if I'm going to do that as a reliever, that's perfect."
Hartleb says he's inclined toward keeping Milroy in the bullpen. If Milroy can continue to exhibit the consistency he's displayed lately, the UI coach says he can be a major difference-maker.
"That's not to put pressure on him, but he's just got that type of ability where he could be a major factor on the pitching staff," Hartleb said. "To get him in the mix and hopefully give us that type of consistency would be huge for our season."
That season took a turn for the better this weekend, as the Illini (17-12) won two of three against Indiana (14-18) to even their Big Ten record at 3-3.
While Milroy was shackling the Hoosiers, the Illini offense continued to do its part. In the fourth inning, Thomas Lindauer followed a two-out single by Reid Roper with an RBI double to put Illinois ahead 6-5.
In the sixth, the Illini manufactured another run before Parr broke it open later in the inning with a grand slam home run.
"(That) one swing of the bat today was huge for us," Hartleb said.
AT THE PLATE
Look for Justin Parr to receive consideration for Big Ten Player of the Week. The Illini left fielder went 7 for 13 and drove in seven runs in the three-game series against Indiana. Parr raised his season batting average 29 percentage points, to .303. In six Big Ten games, the junior is hitting .400.
ON THE MOUND
For the third time in six Big Ten games — and the second time in the series against the Hoosiers — an Illini starting pitcher lasted fewer than three innings on Sunday. Freshman right-hander Josh Ferry was pulled after two innings after giving up five runs (all earned). He allowed three hits, including a three-run homer, and walked three while hitting a batter.
ON THE BASES
After going 1 for 2 in stolen-base attempts in the first two games of the series, the Illini ran with abandon in the finale. Illinois swiped seven bases in eight tries on Sunday, eclipsing its previous single-game high for stolen bases (6) this season.
IN THE STANDS
Big Ten baseball games on Easter weekend can be undesirable dates for the home team, but under the circumstances, fans showed up at Illinois Field in impressive numbers. The Illini-Indiana series drew a total of 3,453 fans. As would be expected, the smallest crowd was on Easter Sunday: 939.
The Illini are scheduled to play two non-conference games this week, starting with Eastern Illinois’ visit to Illinois Field at 6:05 p.m. Tuesday. Illinois then heads to St. Louis to face Missouri at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday in the second “Battle at Busch” at Busch Stadium. Tickets are available online at www.cardinals.com for $15. All tickets are general admission, with seating in the field box level, and come pre-loaded with $5 Cards Cash that can be spent throughout the stadium. BTN will carry the game live.