CHAMPAIGN — As the ball left Justin Parr’s bat in the eighth inning Sunday afternoon, the Illinois center fielder was prepared to shift down into his home run trot.
“I thought it was gone,” he said.
Considering that there already had been four home runs in this wind-buffeted game at Illinois Field — and that a fifth would follow shortly — the Illini senior had every reason to think he’d belted his second round-tripper of the day.
Then, Parr realized he was wrong. And it was off to the races. A race to third base that would complete one of the rarest feats in baseball — hitting for the cycle.
“It just kind of hung in the air a little bit so I knew about halfway to first base that ball’s not gettin’ out, so I just started leggin’ it,” he said.
Parr didn’t stop running until he’d safely reached third. Having previously doubled, homered and singled, the Chillicothe native now had the triple he needed to become the first Illini since Brandon Wikoff in 2009 to join the Circle of Cycle.
“It was a cool experience. Fun thing to do,” Parr said.
And to watch, too, at least if you weren’t a Purdue Boilermaker in the process of getting hammered by Illinois, 17-6.
“To hit for the cycle is one of the toughest feats in baseball, so it was fun to see that today,” Illini coach Dan Hartleb said.
Parr’s cycle was the headliner in a game with plenty of positive storylines for Illinois:
— The victory capped a three-game series sweep, lifting the Illini (22-10) above .500 in the Big Ten for the first time this season at 5-4. With its first conference sweep since last April against Northwestern, Illinois moved from a tie for eighth place in the Big Ten into a share of sixth.
“To get a sweep this weekend at home ... very important for us,” Hartleb said.
— While Purdue’s pitchers struggled mightily in the windy elements, Illini starter Ryan Castellanos and relievers Tyler Jay and Reid Roper kept Boiler bats reasonably in check. Only one of 11 Purdue hits left the park.
Castellanos (2-0) went six-plus innings in his second college start, shutting out Purdue for the first three innings before yielding four runs in the next three.
“The wind was blowing pretty hard and I just wanted to try to get ground balls,” said the Illini freshman, who with the aid of two double plays recorded 10 of his 18 outs via grounders. “I was trying to keep the ball low. I was up a little bit towards the end.”
Hartleb wasn’t complaining, especially considering the challenging conditions and Castellanos’ youth. The Davie, Fla., native turns 19 today.
“To have that type of composure, that was outstanding,” Hartleb said. “You don’t find that with a lot of players at this level. And then, when you look at the fact that he’s a true freshman, just impressive.”
— For the second time in three games, an Illini offense clicking on all cylinders rapped out 20 hits — matching its season high.
Parr (4 for 5, four RBI), Roper (3 for 5, four RBI) and Brandon Hohl (3 for 4, three RBI) led a lineup in which every starter produced at least one hit and eight different batters drove in at least one run.
“We’re getting hits away (opposite field) and using the middle of the field, too, and that’s something our coaches talk about a lot,” Parr said. “And when we do get a pitch in — they make that mistake, leave it up — that’s when we really take advantage of it. I feel like our approach right now is good.”
— The Illini middle infield of shortstop Thomas Lindauer and second baseman Roper turned three double plays, and two ended innings with the bases full of Boilermakers.
“They do an amazing job up the middle,” said Parr, who as a sophomore played 18 games at second base and knows how demanding the position can be. “Every time a ground ball is there, you just know it’s going to be turned.”
— Parr extended his career-best hitting streak to 20 games, and unlike in the previous two games, he didn’t wait until his final plate appearance to keep it going. The left-handed hitter, who ranks among the nation’s leaders with a .438 batting average, ended any streak suspense early this time with a first-inning double.
“I had a few people texting me after the game yesterday like ‘Why do you keep waiting till the last at-bat to get a hit?’ ” a smiling Parr said. “I really can’t control that, but it’s just kind of one of those funny things in baseball. ... That’s not really the main focus right now for me is that streak. It’s just something fun that goes along with it.”