CHAMPAIGN — There are windy days at Illinois Field. And then there are days when even a seemingly pedestrian pop-up or lazy fly ball can strike terror in the heart of a guy with a glove.
Saturday afternoon was one of those days.
“It was crazy with the wind,” said Davis Hendrickson after the senior right fielder and his Illinois teammates survived both the stiff, swirling breezes and a late Penn State comeback to hold on for an 8-6 Big Ten baseball victory.
No doubt, the Nittany Lions agreed with Hendrickson after being bedeviled several times by a westerly wind that one hour into the game measured a steady 26 mph, with gusts to 31.
A couple of wind-blown episodes epitomized the day.
In the first inning, with the Illini already ahead 2-0, Reid Roper came to the plate with two on and two out. Roper lofted a towering pop-up into short left field that had Penn State shortstop Luis Montesinos scrambling as the wind kept pushing the ball around on its descent. It ended up eluding Montesinos, who compounded the damage with a throwing error. Just like that, it was 4-0 Illinois.
“Obviously, it was a factor,” Illini coach Dan Hartleb said of the wind.
The Nittany Lions felt the full sting of the wind again in the seventh inning after cutting Illinois’ lead to 7-5.
Hendrickson hit a soft fly ball to short right field that got pushed around on its journey. Penn State second baseman Ryky Smith did his best to get to the ball, but it fell out of reach. With Hendrickson going full speed out of the batter’s box, he legged out a triple. When Thomas Lindauer followed two batters later with a single, the Illini had a bit more breathing room with an 8-5 advantage.
“A play like that kind of describes how this game went,” Hendrickson said. “I’ve hit balls really hard that have been caught, and I’ve hit balls like that that drop. ... Just a testament to always run hard, so that time it worked to my advantage.”
It works to the Illini’s advantage, too, Hendrickson says, that they have plenty of experience in dealing with days akin to Saturday, when every airborne ball can turn into an adventure.
“It’s windy a lot (here),” he said. “We have to be used to that, though. We play with that type of environment at practice and games all the time.”
For that, the Illini starting pitcher on this day was grateful. Freshman right-hander Ryan Castellanos was backed by a defense that did not commit an error and managed to deal with all wind-blown balls as well as could be expected.
“It changes your approach,” Castellanos said. “The wind was blowing pretty hard, so I was trying to keep the ball low. You want to get pitches on the ground.
“You see what fly balls do. It hits up, you really don’t know if they’re going to get caught or not.”
Castellanos (3-1) induced enough grounders to limit Penn State to two runs through the first six innings before departing in the midst of the Nittany Lions’ three-run seventh inning.
“He wasn’t as sharp as he normally is, but he found a way to battle through,” Hartleb said. “I think my only disappointment today was when we had opportunities to just break the game open we did not have good at-bats. We didn’t swing at good pitches ... swinging at off-speed stuff that wasn’t even in the (strike) zone.”
It might not have been pretty, but Illinois (30-15, 11-9 Big Ten) emerged with a much-needed victory in its quest to qualify for the six-team Big Ten tournament.
The win — combined with Michigan State’s 2-1 loss at Iowa — moved the Illini into sixth place, a half-game ahead of the Spartans (9-8 Big Ten). Both teams have four conference games left.
At the plate
Illini center fielder Justin Parr wasted no time extending his school-record and nation-best hitting streak to 33 games. In his first plate appearance, the senior drove a 1-2 pitch from Greg Welsh to right field for a single. It was Parr’s lone hit in four at-bats.
On the mound
After issuing one walk in the series opener, Penn State racked up 11 — including one intentional — in Game 2. The second performance was more in line with how Nittany Lions pitchers have fared in the control department. Entering the day, Penn State was tied for the most walks allowed among Big Ten teams and had walked the most batters in conference games.
In the field
Illinois has yet to commit an error in the series and now is errorless in four of its last five games. If the Illini can avoid an error today for a third straight game, it would be their longest such streak of the season.
The 30 club
Illinois reached 30 victories for the fifth time in seven seasons with Saturday’s win. Under eighth-year head coach Dan Hartleb, the Illini have won as many as 34 games in a season (34-20 in 2009).
Sophomore right-hander John Kravetz (4-1, 4.45 ERA) will take the mound for the Illini in today’s 11 a.m. series finale. Senior right-hander Steven Hill (1-7, 3.72) is scheduled to start for Penn State. Six Illini players will be honored before the game on Senior Day.