CHAMPAIGN — Two days ago, the defending co-champions of Big Ten Conference baseball were in eighth place and on the cusp of taking an unwanted early summer vacation.
Now, on the final day of the regular season, Illinois can clinch a berth in the six-team Big Ten tournament if it can out-battle ever-tenacious Minnesota one more time for a series sweep.
And today, for the first time in three days, the Illini won't need Indiana's help to get into the postseason.
"Now the term going around is controlling our own destiny," Illini third baseman Brandon Hohl said. "And that's all we could ask for."
By edging the Gophers 3-2 Friday night at Illinois Field, the Illini moved into a tie with Ohio State for sixth at 11-12. Win today's series finale against Minnesota, and Illinois would clinch a spot in the tournament regardless of how the Buckeyes fare at Indiana, where they fell to 0-2 against the Hoosiers on Friday.
Should the Illini and Ohio State both win today, Illinois (28-24) would advance via the head-to-head tiebreaker (the Illini won 2 of 3 against the Buckeyes in April).
Should Illinois and the Buckeyes each lose, creating a three-way tie with Minnesota for sixth place at 11-13, Ohio State would advance.
"It's a one-game season for us at this point," UI pitcher John Kravetz said. "That's the approach you've got to take going into tomorrow. We've still got to take care of tomorrow."
Kravetz (8-3) did his part to keep the Illini in the hunt, holding the Gophers (28-27) to six hits and one run while not issuing a walk in seven innings.
The freshman right-hander needed to be that sharp because Minnesota counterpart D.J. Snelten (4-4) was nearly as effective. Entering the bottom of the seventh, Illinois clung to a 2-1 lead.
"Both pitchers were on their game," said Illini center fielder Willie Argo. "Snelten's a big kid, throwing hard out there. Kravetz always gives us a chance to win. He pounds the (strike) zone. He lets us make plays."
Argo was at the forefront of an Illini offense that made the most of six hits while capitalizing on some pitch-and-catch problems by the Gophers (two wild pitches, three passed balls).
Besides scoring Illinois' first two runs. Argo drove in what proved to be the decisive third run in the seventh inning with a fielder's choice grounder. On the play, the speedy senior beat the relay to first base to foil a potential inning-ending double play.
"Willie, what a great job," Illini coach Dan Hartleb said. "When you play against good pitching ... it's never easy. You have to scrape, claw. We just found ways to manufacture a few runs and came out ahead."
Second baseman Reid Roper made sure Illinois stayed ahead, pitching a scoreless ninth for his second save in as many games after Minnesota drew within 3-2 in the eighth.
AT THE PLATE
The Illini won for just the third time this season when being out-hit by the opponent. Minnesota finished with an 8-6 advantage in hits. Illinois now is 3-19 in such games.
ON THE MOUND
Winning pitcher John Kravetz pitched seven innings, the sixth time the freshman right-hander has worked that far into a game. In 14 starts this season, Kravetz has gone at least six innings nine times.
ON THE RISE
By scoring twice, Illini senior center fielder Willie Argo moved into sole possession of fifth place on the all-time school list for career runs with 186. He also is third in UI history in career runs scored in Big Ten games with 84.
Next week’s Big Ten tournament will be the last in Columbus, Ohio, for at least two years. The conference office announced Friday the 2013 tournament will be held at Target Field in Minneapolis (home of the Minnesota Twins) and the 2014 event at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Neb. (site of the College World Series). Huntington Park (home of the Class AAA Columbus Clippers) is the site of the 2012 tournament, the third time it’s being held there in four years.
The Illini will send redshirt freshman right-hander Drasen Johnson (1-0, 5.66 ERA) to the mound for today’s 12:05 p.m. series finale against senior right-hander Austin Lubinsky (3-4, 4.02 ERA). Johnson, who’ll make his fourth straight Big Ten start, has a 3.04 ERA in his last six appearances. In that span, he’s walked three in 23 2/3 innings.