Baseball team celebrates rare feat

Baseball team celebrates rare feat

CHAMPAIGN — In the span of one week, Drasen Johnson’s offensive support went from feast to near-famine.

No worries for the Illinois right-hander, who has plenty of practice at making the best of meager backing at the plate.

Johnson did so again Friday night, shutting out Michigan for seven innings to help the Illini make a fourth-inning run hold up for a tense 1-0 Big Ten baseball victory against Michigan at Illinois Field.

“You can’t expect your team to score 12 runs in a game like last week,” said the redshirt junior, referring to last Friday’s 13-0 Illini rout of Northwestern in which he was the beneficiary. “But I went about that game the same as I did this one because you’ve got to go out there and throw up zeroes either way.”

For Johnson, at times that’s been a virtual necessity this season. His average run support in his previous eight starts was 2.9, lowest on the UI staff among starters.

Friday was more of the same for Johnson. But it was also more of the same by Johnson and a UI pitching staff that has been throwing up zeroes in abundance during the team’s current six-game winning streak. In that span, Illini pitchers have thrown three shutouts, limited opponents to seven runs and compiled a 1.15 ERA.

When Illini reliever Tyler Jay followed Johnson with two scoreless innings to finish the game, it marked the first time since May 1969 that Illinois had won consecutive 1-0 shutouts.

It also extended Illinois’ current streak of scoreless innings pitched to 25.

“That’s impressive at any level,” UI coach Dan Hartleb said.

The way the game started, there was little indication that Johnson (4-4) would extend his personal scoreless pitching streak to 14 innings. The first three Michigan batters each hit rockets. Johnson’s only salvation was that the second of those liners was caught by right fielder Casey Fletcher, whose quick throw to first base doubled up base runner Travis Maezes.

Jackson Glines followed with a double, but Johnson got the next batter to end the inning. From there, the Illini right-hander was in lockdown mode, limiting Michigan to two hits over the next six innings.

“I left the ball up a little bit in the first inning, but I was able to make adjustments and get myself back down in the zone and get outs,” he said.

Illinois (18-11, 6-1 Big Ten) did itself no favors on the bases, with two runners picked off and two others thrown out at the plate for inning-ending outs.

The base-running issues were particularly conspicuous in the fourth inning, when five of the six Illini who batted produced hits but two were erased on the bases.

Even so, Illinois managed to come away with one run in that offense-filled frame when Reid Roper delivered a two-out single to center that scored Michael Hurwitz from third base.

It was the lone run allowed by Michigan left-hander Evan Hill in seven innings, but it was enough for Illinois, thanks to Johnson, Jay and a defense that backed them with two double plays and several other fielding gems.

“Friday night games, each team has their best guy (pitcher) going,” Roper said. “We knew that every run was going to be important offensively and defensively.

“(Our) pitching did a great job again. Even when the offense isn’t there, the pitching’s been constant for us so far.”

Illini shortstop Adam Walton wasted no time extending his hitting streak to 11 games. In his first at-bat, the sophomore lined a two-out single to center field in the third inning. Walton broke a tie with catcher Jason Goldstein for the team’s longest hitting streak this season.

Illini third baseman Ryne Roper made a sprinting, over-the-shoulder catch in short left field to start an inning-ending double play in the eighth.  Michigan’s Travis Maezes was all the way to second base when Roper grabbed the looping fly by Jacob Cronenworth and was easily doubled off first.

Michigan pitcher Evan Hill, who entered with four pickoffs this season, added two more in the first four innings. The left-hander caught Walton leaning too far off first base with two outs in the third. Walton was retired in a rundown. With no outs in the fourth, Hill picked Will Krug off second base.

The first six batters in Michigan’s lineup against Illini starter Drasen Johnson hit from the left side. The UI right-hander limited the group to four hits in 17 a-bats and one walk in seven hitless innings.

Sophomore right-hander Ryan Castellanos (3-1, 3.18 ERA) is the Illini’s scheduled starter for the second game of the three-game series at 3 p.m. Saturday. He’ll face junior left-hander Trent Szkutnik (0-4, 2.83 ERA). Castellanos has yet to walk a batter in 34 innings this season.