NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The big boppers in the Georgia Tech lineup had nothing on the Illinois baseball team Friday afternoon at Hawkins Field.
Or at least on Jordan Parr.
Bouncing back from an 0-for-11 Big Ten tournament, the redshirt junior homered twice and drove in three runs to propel the Illini to a 6-4 victory against Georgia Tech in the opening round of the NCAA tournament’s Nashville Regional.
“He didn’t have a very good Big Ten tournament from a production standpoint, so I’m happy for him,” UI coach Dan Hartleb said. “He was a big part of our win.”
It’s a win that sent Illinois (35-18) into a winners’ bracket matchup against No. 2 national seed Vanderbilt (52-9) at 7 p.m. Saturday. The Commodores beat East Tennessee State 9-1 on Friday night in the other first-round game.
“We know we can compete with these teams,” Parr said.
The Illini left fielder made that statement with his bat, too, against an opponent known for its long-ball prowess. Entering the NCAA tournament, the Yellow Jackets (34-26) had belted 56 home runs, tied for sixth most in the nation.
Parr, meanwhile, had gone homerless in 28 of his previous 29 games — although the exception also was a two-home run performance.
“You don’t go out there and try to play the other team’s style; you just play your own,” he said. “I like to get singles and use my speed. Today, I just got lucky.”
Not that Parr’s power surge should have come as any particular surprise. With his two-run homer in the fourth inning and round-tripper to lead off the sixth, the former Parkland College standout now has hit eight long balls this season and 13 for his two-year Illini career.
What was surprising was Georgia Tech coach Danny Hall’s choice of starting pitchers for the opener of this double-elimination event. Senior right-hander Buck Farmer is clearly the Yellow Jackets’ ace, going 8-4 with a 2.87 ERA this season while racking up more strikeouts (112) than innings pitched.
Instead, Hall went with junior righty Dusty Isaacs, whose 4-7 record and 4.77 ERA only tell part of the story. In his previous seven starts, Isaacs was 0-5 with a 6.27 ERA.
If Hall was trying to save Farmer for an anticipated meeting with Vanderbilt on Saturday, Illinois made sure the plan backfired. Isaacs (4-8) was pulled with one out in the sixth inning with his team trailing 4-0. Isaacs — who last won a game March 30 — yielded five hits, walked three and hit a batter.
Hartleb thought Hall’s choice of starters showed a lack of respect for his team and his conference.
“That goes back to the fact that nationally people don’t respect the Big Ten the way they should,” the UI coach said. “All year I’ve said we’ve got good teams. (Georgia Tech) looked past us from a pitching standpoint. We made them pay for it.”
Meanwhile, the Illini’s own ace more than lived up to that billing in his NCAA tournament debut. Big Ten Freshman of the Year Kevin Duchene (9-1) limited Georgia Tech’s potent attack to three runs in seven innings. In one stretch, the left-hander retired nine of 10 batters. And the one home run Duchene allowed against a team that averages nearly one round-tripper per game was a solo shot.
“We’ve seen him beat some really good teams, and today was no different,” Parr said. “I think it was special to watch, and I think everybody is going to be blown away by what he does the next couple of years.”
Duchene left with his team clinging to a 4-3 lead, but Illinois jumped on Yellow Jackets reliever Alex Cruz in the eighth inning for two runs to create some breathing room.
Cruz retired one of the four batters he faced — on a sacrifice bunt — and the Illini capitalized with RBI singles by Thomas Lindauer and Justin Parr. Lindauer, who was 0 for 3 to that point, extended his hitting streak to 16 games.
Those eighth-inning runs loomed large for Illinois when Georgia Tech cut its deficit to 6-4 in the bottom of the inning and then mounted a scoring threat in the ninth.
Illini closer Bryan Roberts issued a leadoff walk, then walked another batter with two outs — putting the tying runs on base and bringing the potential winning run to the plate.
That batter, Daniel Palka, entered the day with 17 home runs and 66 RBI. And in this game, the Louisville Slugger third-team All-American already was 3 for 4 with a triple.
On a 1-2 pitch, Palka whistled a line drive to the right side, but quick-reacting Illini first baseman David Kerian made a diving grab to end the game.
“That was their big home run hitter, and David made a great diving catch,” Hartleb said. “He’s very athletic. He’s not your typical first baseman. He’s a middle infielder playing first.”
With the victory preserved and Roberts’ eighth save in the books, Illinois now will attempt to go 2-0 in an NCAA tournament for only the second time in program history and first since 1948.
Sophomore right-hander John Kravetz (5-2, 3.96 ERA) is scheduled to start for the Illini tonight. In each of his last five starts, Kravetz has pitched at least seven innings while allowing two earned runs or less.