CHAMPAIGN — From the three homers he hit on Wednesday to the two bombs he hit ahead of his walk-off single in Saturday’s win against Michigan State, Illinois’ Casey Fletcher had been celebrated plenty in the past week.
Sunday was supposed to provide an opportunity to celebrate something else for the Illinois baseball team, and there were plenty of options.
Luke Joyce, Chase Hainline and Ronnie Muck were honored prior to Sunday’s home finale against the Spartans for Senior Day. Two young fans were celebrating birthday parties on a sun-kissed day at Illinois Field and most notably, ace Kevin Duchene made his return to the mound after a six-week absence because of tightness in his left pitching arm.
But that darn Fletcher stole the show once again, lacing a two-run single into the left-centerfield gap with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, sending the Illini to a 10-9 victory and a series sweep of the Spartans (24-20, 8-10 Big Ten).
“I don’t know what’s going on,” a dumbfounded Fletcher said after the game. “I just keep getting put in spots to help the team win, and I came through again (Sunday).”
Illinois coach Dan Hartleb has gone from declaring the Southern Illinois game, in which his right fielder hit three homers, as Casey Fletcher Day. Saturday he extended it to Casey Fletcher Week. Is this Casey Fletcher Month?
“I’m hoping so,” the Illinois coach said. “That means we get three more good weeks out of him.”
The 5-foot-11, 170-pound junior from Oakwood went 2 for 5 Sunday with two runs driven in.
His numbers for the week: 8 for 17 (.471) with five home runs and 10 RBI.
“I’ve never swung the bat like this in my life,” the left-handed hitting transfer from Kankakee Community College said. “I feel very comfortable at the plate right now. It’s just clicking for me right now.”
If not for Fletcher’s sizzling week, perhaps teammate David Kerian would be in line for Big Ten Player of the Week consideration. Illinois’ first baseman went 2 for 5 Sunday with five RBI, including a three-run double in Illinois’ four-run seventh to tie the game at 7 and a two-run triple in the third.
“For me, I feel really great out there, playing hard, everybody’s playing hard right now,” Kerian said. “Casey’s hitting well and that’s fine if I’m behind him. Everybody’s doing well right now.”
Illinois (27-17, 13-5) came from behind to win all three games by a single run during the series sweep to remain tied with Nebraska for second place in the Big Ten, three games behind leader Indiana with two weekends remaining before the conference tournament.
“This is the most fight I’ve seen out of us this year and it’s coming at a good time, toward the end of the year and that’s when we need it, going into the tournament,” Kerian said.
And the Illinois pitching, which has been outstanding much of the year, is getting a boost late in the season with Duchene returning to action. The sophomore left-handed ace started for the first time since March 14. He went three innings, allowing four hits and a run while throwing two pitches more than the 40 he was scheduled to throw.
“It’s been way too long, my friend,” Duchene said. “At the National Anthem, I was talking to (catcher) Jason (Goldstein) and I was like ‘Why am I nervous right now? Why am I so anxious to get back on this mound?’ He told me to be cool, do my thing and for three innings, that’s what I tried to do, stay within myself.”
Reid Roper added a pair of hits and drove in two runs, while Adam Walton went 3 for 4 as closer Tyler Jay pitched the final 2-2/3 to pick up the win.
But the day, the week belonged to Fletcher, who had trouble finding the words to sum up his last seven days. He was quick to answer, though, when asked if this has been the greatest week of baseball in his life.
“Yeah, I’d say so,” he said.
At the plate
Lost in the heroics of Casey Fletcher and David Kerian was Matthew James, who entered the game as a pinch-hitter in the seventh inning, getting a hit and hit by pitch in his two plate appearances, scoring both times.
On the mound
Illinois relievers allowed eight runs on 10 hits in six innings of work on the day No. 1 starter Kevin Duchene returned from his six-week absence, but they were bailed out by their offense’s timely, clutch hitting.
In the field
With catcher Jason Goldstein telling him to find the fence, Kerian tracked down a high foul popup near the Michigan State dugout, reached over the fence and left his feet to secure an out on a ball hit by Justin Hovis.
The Illini won’t play again until traveling to Iowa on Friday for a Big Ten series against the Hawkeyes, who wrap up their Big Ten series with a rubber game at Ohio State tonight in Columbus.