In pinch, Duchene pitches in

In pinch, Duchene pitches in

CHAMPAIGN — The Illinois baseball team was without its usual Game 1 starter Friday night, but you could have fooled Justin Parr.

After watching freshman Kevin Duchene flirt with a no-hitter while mowing through Penn State’s lineup, the Illini senior center fielder was struck by the resemblance to his team’s resident pitching ace.

“He looked like Kevin Johnson out there, honestly,” Parr said after Duchene threw a two-hit shutout in Illinois’ 9-0 Big Ten romp past the Nittany Lions at Illinois Field.

“You know how Kevin works fast and just pounds the (strike) zone and gets guys out throwing different pitches? He looked like a kind of guy who had been starting for a few years here, honestly.”

Duchene finished with 11 strikeouts — most by a UI pitcher this season — and took a no-hitter into the seventh inning. The left-hander’s bid to become the first Illini since 1985 to no-hit an opponent ended when leadoff batter James Coates, on a 1-2 pitch, sent a laser shot past Duchene into center field for a single.

“I didn’t see really where it went,” Duchene said. “I thought it went through my legs, but I had no time to react to that one. I flinched and it was just past me.”

After a double-play grounder erased Coates, Duchene allowed his second — and last hit — on an infield single.

“He looked like a veteran ... the way he composed himself, especially after giving up that hit when he had the no-no going,” Parr said.

No Nittany Lion reached second base against Duchene (7-1), who recorded seven perfect innings.

With Johnson sidelined by a forearm strain,  UI coach Dan Hartleb turned to Duchene to open this critical series and saw the Joliet native respond with a dominant performance. Of Duchene’s 103 pitches, 73 were strikes, and he yielded only one walk while joining Johnson as the only Illini pitchers this season to throw a complete-game shutout.

“Every time I looked up at the scoreboard it was 0-2, 1-2, and then he threw quality pitches,” Hartleb said. “He was really, really good tonight, and I’ve said over the past few weeks I think he has the ability to be a No. 1 pitcher. And I think he took another step toward that tonight.”

In the process, Duchene moved within one win of the UI freshman record for victories, set last season by John Kravetz.

With the win, Illinois (29-15, 10-9 Big Ten) remained in seventh place, a half-game behind Michigan State (9-7) in the chase to reach the six-team Big Ten tournament.

“We know every game’s important,” Parr said. “Right now, our mentality is to play every game hard, do what we can to win tomorrow’s game — one game at a time — and take care of what we can take care of.”

At the plate
Illini center fielder Justin Parr went 3 for 5, including a two-run home run, to extend his school-record hitting streak to 32 games. The senior raised his batting average five percentage points to .439.

On the mound
After holding off on announcing a Game 1 starter to replace injured T.J. Jann (shoulder), Penn State coach Robbie Wine went with sophomore Ryan Harper. The right-hander, making his second Big Ten start and seventh overall, didn’t make it through the fourth inning after allowing 11 hits and nine runs.

In the field
Penn State third baseman Elliot Searer made a costly mental error in the fourth inning after fielding a grounder with two outs and a runner at second base. Thinking he had a force-out, Searer touched third and did not attempt a throw to first that would have retired batter Jacob Goldstein to end the inning. Illinois made Penn State pay, following with six straight hits and scoring seven runs.

Milestone marker
Senior Brandon Hohl made his 200th career start at third base for the Illini. The four-year starter is within eight of the UI’s all-time top 10 for career starts. Hohl has appeared in a total of 202 Illinois games.

On deck
The series continues at 1:05 p.m. today, with Illini freshman right-hander Ryan Castellanos (2-1, 5.29 ERA) scheduled to start against junior left-hander Greg Welsh (2-5, 4.14). Illinois is 3-1 in games started by Castellanos, all against Big Ten opponents.