CHAMPAIGN — The first punch in a Big Ten showdown series at Illinois Field was landed by conference leader Indiana.
Illinois still has two more swings at the Hoosiers this weekend, but the league runner-up knows a performance like it turned in Friday night won’t come close to getting the job done.
“Gotta win. We’ve got to win,” Illini right fielder Casey Fletcher said after No. 13 Indiana rolled to a 9-3 victory in front of 1,122 fans. “We want to make a statement. We want to let everyone know in the Big Ten that we’re a contender.”
With their 15th win in the last 16 games, the white-hot Hoosiers (27-11) pulled further ahead in their quest to repeat as Big Ten champions. At 12-1 in the conference, Indiana now leads Illinois (22-16, 9-4 Big Ten) by three games. The Illini also lost sole possession of second place when Nebraska defeated Michigan 6-4 Friday night to pull even in the standings.
Illinois matched Indiana virtually hit for hit, finishing with 12 to the Hoosiers’ 13. But except for the third inning, when the Illini scored all of their runs, they couldn’t match Indiana’s timeliness or power (six extra-base hits to Illinois’ two) at the plate.
“We were hitting them pretty well, but we just didn’t get hits with guys in scoring position,” UI second baseman Reid Roper said.
Meanwhile, Illini starter Drasen Johnson (4-5) turned in an uncharacteristically rocky outing. The junior right-hander entered with a 2.30 ERA, and in his previous three starts — covering 201/3 innings — had allowed one earned run.
The Hoosiers, however, jumped on Johnson for nine hits and seven runs — all earned — in five innings.
“He got ahead of a lot of hitters, but then it was like he was picky,” Illini coach Dan Hartleb said. “He wasn’t even close to the plate for the next two or three pitches and ... they’d work it even or full count and then put good swings on the ball.”
Roper’s two-run home run and Fletcher’s sacrifice fly in the fourth inning pulled Illinois within 6-3.
But that’s all the Illini could muster against Big Ten wins leader Joey DeNato (9-1), who went eight innings.
“We’ve just got to regroup and get the next two,” Roper said.
AT THE PLATE — One game after Illini shortstop Adam Walton’s hitting streak ended at 18 games, teammate Will Krug saw his career-best nine-game streak halted as well. The junior center fielder went 0 for 5 with three strikeouts. Krug nearly beat out a bunt single in the first inning but was retired on a sterling play by Hoosiers third baseman Dustin DeMuth.
ON THE MOUND — Indiana ace Joey DeNato’s streak of shutout innings pitched ended at 12 during the Illini’s three-run fourth inning. The senior left-hander’s streak spanned three games and included eight scoreless innings in his last start against Michigan State.
ON THE BASES — Illini David Kerian scored all the way from second base on a sacrifice fly in the fourth inning. Kerian reached home after Indiana center fielder Tim O’Conner raced back and made a tumbling catch on a drive by Casey Fletcher. Indiana coach Tracy Smith came out on the field to question the ruling that Kerian had tagged up before advancing but lost the argument.
ON DECK — The series continues at 3 p.m. Saturday, with Illini junior right-hander John Kravetz (4-1, 3.00 ERA) scheduled to face Hoosiers sophomore righty Christian Morris (2-2, 2.49 ERA). Kravetz has won his last four decisions and has not allowed more than two earned runs in any of his last four starts while working at least six innings.