CHAMPAIGN — This was the way Casey Fletcher’s day started Wednesday.
“I had a terrible batting practice,” said Fletcher, a junior outfielder on the UI baseball team. “I felt awful. I was a little tentative. I was mad at myself.”
This was the way Darrin Fletcher’s day was going Wednesday.
“The weather wasn’t great. I had some things going on,” Darrin said. “I was debating whether to shoot over (from Newtown, for the makeup game against Southern Illinois University).”
Mom decided to take a pass. Sheila Fletcher went shopping with her daughter.
Darrin might have wondered who made the better decision after traveling to Champaign and watching Casey at bat the first time.
“I was jammed,” Casey said. “I was out in front on a curve and hit it weakly to third base. It was a bad swing.”
Because Dad was at the ballpark, he noticed something in Casey’s swing. From his seat near the on-deck circle, former major leaguer Darrin offered a quick tip before Casey batted a second time.
“It wasn’t a long conversation,” Casey said. “I know what he means when he says something little. I made an adjustment.”
Three home runs later, Casey had the most memorable game in his baseball career and the Illini had a 10-1 triumph against SIU, a win that moved ninth-year head coach Dan Hartleb into a tie for fourth place with Tom Dedin on the school list for most wins as an Illini baseball coach (268).
“I normally wouldn’t give tips,” Darrin said. “I couldn’t help myself. I noticed something he falls into sometimes. I said if he wants to pull the ball, use the top hand. You have to get the top hand on the ball. It’s something (veteran UI assistant) Eric Snider would tell him.”
The left-handed-hitting Fletcher homered on three consecutive at-bats, driving in five runs. All three shots were to right field. He said he wasn’t thinking “long ball” on his fourth at-bat.
“Absolutely not,” he said. “I had two strikes, and he was throwing offspeed. I kept battling and battling, and he came in with a fastball.”
“It was a neat moment for me,” Darrin said. “I was sitting with Lou Skizas, who was my hitting coach at Illinois, when they tried to sneak a fastball inside, and he hit it out.”
Casey entered Wednesday’s game with one home run in the first 40 Illini games. The power surge didn’t surprise Dad.
“Casey has never been a power hitter, but occasionally he has shown glimpses of power,” Darrin said. “(Wednesday), he made some nice adjustments.”
Casey’s first career three-homer game came quicker than his dad’s. Darrin’s only three-homer game occurred after he reached the major leagues and played with the Toronto Blue Jays in 2000.
“We have the bat in the basement,” Casey said.
In his first two years after graduating from Oakwood High School, Casey played for Kankakee Community College. Those games were played with one goal in mind.
“Dad played here. Grandpa (Tom) played here. This was always my main push. I wanted to be part of the family tradition,” Casey said.
From Darrin’s perspective, his son is an example of a player who didn’t reach his peak in high school or early in his junior college career.
“He has come a long ways,” Darrin said. “At Kankakee, he did some good things, but in his junior season at Illinois, this is as well as I’ve ever seen him swing the bat. He has consistently had good at-bats.
“Dan and Eric have done a great job of keeping him rolling.”
Casey’s home run feat came on the 23rd anniversary of when Bubba Smith set the UI single-game record with four home runs against Illinois-Chicago. Willie Argo (2009) was the last Illini with a three-homer game.
“Three home runs is quite an accomplishment,” Darrin said. “It’s tough enough to hit one over the fence.”
At 6-foot, 175 pounds, Casey doesn’t expect opposing pitchers to view him any differently.
“I don’t think they’ll look at me as a home run hitter,” he said. “They’ll try to challenge me. This was one of those days when I had a good game.”
Fletcher raised his season batting average to .298 and stands second on the Illini (to Reid Roper) in homers.
Fletcher had no special postgame celebration plans.
“Hit the books,” he said, “and try to get some sleep.”
Rob McDonnell (4-0) pitched three scoreless innings, striking out four Salukis, and earned the win. Jason Goldstein and Adam Walton each had two hits for the Illini.
Illinois (24-17) returns to action at 6 p.m. Friday for the start of a three-game homestand against Michigan State.