Yalowitz's fourth inning homer sends Illini toward rout of Redbirds

Yalowitz's fourth inning homer sends Illini toward rout of Redbirds

CHAMPAIGN — Jack Yalowitz was looking for a specific pitch when he stepped to the plate in the bottom of the fourth inning of Friday's game against Illinois State.

How Yalowitz's first at-bat against the Redbirds' Brett Headrick finished — a swinging strikeout — played into the Illinois right fielder's thinking. So did the situation with Kellen Sarver and Cam McDonald on base after a single and a walk, respectively, with no outs.

Yalowitz knew Headrick might go back to his slider. That's the big ISU lefty's out pitch and the one he likes to throw with runners in scoring position.

"I tried to bunt for a hit earlier in the at-bat," Yalowitz said. "I'm glad it was foul. I just kind of kept battling, and he hung me that slider that I was looking for up. I got my barrel to it, and it got out of here quick."

Yalowitz's three-run home run over the right field wall sparked a five-run inning as Illinois batted around in the fourth.

The Illini did it again in the fifth — with Yalowitz starting the rally again with a leadoff single — and scored four more runs as they pulled away for a 14-3 victory in front of 751 fans at Illinois Field during their series opener against the Redbirds.

"The reason we've been successful this year is we get quality at-bats up and down the lineup on a regular basis," Illinois coach Dan Hartleb said. "There's days we've probably hit the ball better than we did (Friday) and didn't have as many hits because you hit them at people, but very good run production and hit production. We weren't swinging at pitches out of the zone very often. Just did a lot of things well."

Yalowitz included.

A year ago, though, that might not have been the case.

The Chicago native saw his batting average dip more than 100 points after a breakout sophomore season. His power numbers took a hit, and he struck out more and walked less.

"I think he was in a situation where part of it was draft year and the other part of it — probably the bigger part of it — was he had performed so well the year before," Hartleb said. "You try to replicate it instead of just going out and playing. Both of those things frustrated him."

Yalowitz put undue pressure on himself last spring. Not doing so again this year was something he spent the offseason thinking about and then implementing this season. It's working, as Yalowitz is back to form, hitting .319 this season after a 2 of 6 day at the plate against ISU. His fourth-inning home run Friday tied him with Michael Massey and Zac Taylor for the team lead with three.

"When you go through the year that I went through last year with a lot of struggles, it would almost be stupid of me to put that pressure on myself again," Yalowitz said. "I'm a year older. I'm a year more into my career. ... The less pressure I put on myself, the more successful I'm going to be. I just had to ease up a little bit, and it's really worked out well so far."

Some tweaks to his mechanics have helped Yalowitz at the plate, too. He simplified his swing, making it easier to see the ball out of the pitcher's hand to make better contact and ensuring he kept the barrel of his bat in the zone longer.

Yalowitz isn't pressing this season either.

"We've got a lot of really good hitters in this lineup," he said. Ben Troike, Branden Comia, McDonald, Grant Van Scoy and Jacob Campbell all had at least two hits for the Illini (15-4) on Friday. Troike and Comia matched Yalowitz with three RBI.

"I don't have to be the one that produces all the runs," Yalowitz continued. "I'm hitting in the six hole. It's really nice to sit there and get a lot of fastballs."

Hartleb called Yalowitz's home run the key play of Friday's big win against ISU (13-7) with lefty starter Andy Fisher dealing for the Illini, giving up just one run on two hits and two walks to go with seven strikeouts in six innings.

The pressure is off of Yalowitz. And that's a good thing, according to his coach.

"There were times last year I thought he had things going pretty well, but he just couldn't be consistent," Hartleb said. "He's just more mature. It's a mental thing. This game's tough. Some guys don't mature until five years into professional baseball. It's a tough game. It's something where you have to learn and go through things. It's a process. He's better because he's been through the process."