Baseball inches closer to tourney berth
MINNEAPOLIS — Brandon Hohl had a tough time at the plate Thursday afternoon, going 0 for 4 with two strikeouts.
In the field, however, the senior third baseman was a life-saver for Illinois in a critical 6-2 Big Ten baseball victory against Minnesota.
Clinging to a 4-2 lead in the seventh inning of the series opener, the Illini needed one more out to escape a jam. With Gophers pinch runner J.T. Canakes on third base, pinch hitter Matt Halloran lofted a shallow fly ball down the left-field line that was far beyond the reach of Illini left fielder Jordan Parr.
Sprinting with his back to the plate, Hohl made an over-the-shoulder catch to stop the Gopher comeback bid in its tracks.
With the win, Illinois (32-15, 13-9) remained in a tie for fifth place with Michigan, and one-half game ahead of seventh-place Michigan State (11-8) with two games left in the conference race. The top six teams qualify for next week’s Big Ten tournament. The Illini can clinch a tournament berth with a win today and a loss by either the Wolverines or Spartans.
The Illini never trailed against ace Tom Windle and the Gophers after scoring once in the first inning. Minnesota (29-19, 12-7) matched that run in the bottom of the first, but Illinois went ahead for good in the fourth on a sacrifice fly by Reid Roper.
Windle entered as the Big Ten ERA leader (1.76) and tied for the conference lead in strikeouts (78). The Illini rose to the challenge with seven hits and four runs in six innings against the junior left-hander, who struggled with his control. Windle (6-4) walked four, hit a batter and uncorked a wild pitch. Two Illini who took base against Windle without benefit of a hit came around to score.
Meanwhile, Illinois starter Kevin Duchene (8-1) turned in another impressive performance while tying the school record for victories by a freshman. Six days after throwing a two-hit shutout against Penn State, the left-hander held the Gophers to six hits and two runs in six-plus innings.
The Illinois bullpen took it from there, Ronnie Muck and closer Bryan Roberts combining for three hitless shutout innings.
Although the Illini left 11 runners on base, they also scored their final four runs after two outs.
Illinois first baseman David Kerian went 3 for 5, including a two-run double in the ninth.