CHAMPAIGN — It took Reid Roper exactly two at-bats to hit his first home run as a college baseball player.
A sign of things to come?
Not exactly. Following that memorable debut in an Illinois uniform on Feb. 17, 2012, the Harrisburg native went 74 games without a fences-clearing hit.
It’s a streak that still baffles Dan Hartleb.
“He does have home-run power,” the Illini coach said. “When he hits the ball on the barrel, it’s like a sledgehammer hitting the ball sometimes. I mean, he really can drive the ball.”
After what Roper has done the past two games, it’s likely that Purdue’s pitchers need no convincing.
One day after ending his homer drought with a two-run blast in a wild 17-12 victory against the Boilermakers, Roper was at it again Saturday afternoon at Illinois Field. And this time, his power surge couldn’t have come at a bigger moment. With two outs in the eighth inning, Roper belted a two-run homer to cap a three-run rally that lifted the Illini to a 6-4 Big Ten triumph.
“This may be one of my biggest hits as an Illini,” the redshirt sophomore said.
Until Friday, hits of any kind had been hard to come by lately for Roper. He entered the opener of the three-game series in a serious funk at the plate. In his previous eight games, Roper was 3 for 27 — a .111 batting average that had dragged his season figure down to .231.
“If you look at his past probably two-and-a-half weeks, he’s really scuffled,” Hartleb said. “But he’s continued to work hard. Always has a great attitude.”
Now, Roper has something to show for it. In two games against Purdue, he is 4 for 9 with three extra-base hits and four RBI.
“Nice for him to get hitting again,” Illini first baseman David Kerian said.
Kerian, too, played a major role in a game that was starting to look bleak for Illinois (21-10, 4-4 Big Ten).
Although the Illini trailed 4-3 entering the eighth inning, their offense was in the deep freeze. Illinois not only had been held scoreless since the second inning but Purdue pitchers had retired 11 of the last 12 Illini batters.
For an Illini team with eight comeback victories already on its 2013 resume, however, there’s always reason for hope.
“The game didn’t go the way we wanted it to in certain areas, but we just kept fighting,” Roper said.
Justin Parr opened the fateful Illini eighth with a single but was forced out on a grounder by Jordan Parr. After a stolen base and a flyout, Jordan Parr stood at third base with two outs.
Moments later, he touched the plate with the tying run on an opposite-field single to left by Kerian.
“It was a low outside pitch, and I drove it the other way like I should,” he said.
Then it was Roper doing the driving, pulling an inside fastball over the right-field fence to bring a crowd of 937 to its feet.
“He has given us a lot in the past two games, so hopefully he’s worked his way out of the slump,” Hartleb said.
Illini closer Bryan Roberts took it from there, following teammate Kevin Duchene’s 21/3 scoreless innings of relief with a perfect ninth inning.
“I thought our bullpen did a great job,” Hartleb said.
AT THE PLATE
For the second consecutive game, Illini senior Justin Parr kept his career-best hitting streak alive in his final plate appearance. The center fielder hit a leadoff single in the eighth inning to extend his streak to 19 games.
ON THE MOUND
Illini reliever Bryan Roberts has yet to allow a run in eight appearances this season after pitching a scoreless ninth inning. The fifth-year senior right-hander has thrown 12 innings without being scored upon.
ON THE BASES
One year after being thrown out 10 times in 16 stolen-base attempts, Illini left fielder Jordan Parr is 13 of 14 in that category. Parr swiped two bases Saturday, including one during the UI’s eighth-inning rally.
Illini designated hitter Michael Hurwitz’s streak of consecutive games reaching base ended at 17. The sophomore, who went 0 for 4, had the second-longest such streak on the team this season behind Justin Parr (19).
Freshman Ryan Castellanos (1-0, 2.60 ERA) is scheduled to make his second start for the Illini (2:05 p.m., BTN). Junior right-hander Brad Schreiber (1-4, 6.14 ERA) is Purdue’s scheduled starter.