Korte, Illini claim tournament berth

Korte, Illini claim tournament berth

CHAMPAIGN — As a 5-foot-8, 190-pound baseball catcher, Jeff Korte is not the most ideal candidate to hit a triple.

Nor is he the first guy you'd choose when looking for a baserunner to tag from third on a medium-depth fly ball to left field.

Korte completed both of those tasks Sunday for No. 25 Illinois.

And he couldn't have picked a better time.

Korte's RBI triple in the sixth inning produced the eventual game-winning tally.

Moments later, his savvy footwork netted an insurance marker as the Illini defeated Purdue 6-4 to gain not only a three-tilt series sweep, but also guaranteed entry into the Big Ten tournament.

"I never expect a triple out of that guy," Illinois coach Dan Hartleb said with a smile. "Then he tags and scores on (Michael Michalak's) ball to left field. It looked like a tank coming down the line."

Korte jokingly credited the 14th-year Illini boss with providing Korte everything displayed in that sequence.

"Dan's been really teaching me some good speed techniques," Korte said before adding, "I've actually been hitting the ball in the right place."

That meant down the right-field line off Boilermakers reliever Kyle Wade with Grant Van Scoy on first base.

Korte was hitting just .206 on the year prior to Sunday's bout, so the triple and a later single provided a nice pick-me-up.

"I was struggling all weekend," Korte said. "He threw me a curveball right down the middle, and I just put a good swing on it."

Illinois (34-16, 13-8 Big Ten) worked around a rough start from Cyrillo Watson, who lasted just 2 2 / 3 innings while allowing two runs on six hits and four walks, to record its first conference series sweep since silencing Penn State in April.

Aside from two free-passes and four hit batters, the bullpen quartet of Quinn Snarskis, Josh Harris, Sean Leland and Garrett Acton (17th save) mostly kept Purdue (19-31, 7-13) from breaking out.

"As I've said all year, there's no easy wins," Hartleb said. "Every team in the Big Ten's capable of beating you every single day, and I thought our guys just did a great job of going out and finding ways to win."

Included in that mindset was stout defense from the Illini.

Korte caught two Boilermakers stealing, one of them Cole McKenzie trying to score from third on a passed ball. Watson also picked off a runner, and both Snarskis and left fielder Cam McDonald left their feet to make a catch.

"I knew coming into the game that Purdue's a team that likes to steal bags," Korte said. "Our pitchers did a really good job of holding runners and working in slidesteps and changing looks and really trying to shut down the run game."

Purdue actually pulled out to a 2-0 advantage through 2 1 / 2 frames before Branden Comia — filling in for injured Ben Troike — tripled home Illinois' first run in the third and scored on a wild pitch.

Jack Yalowitz added an RBI double, and Michalak contributed another sacrifice fly as the Illini went from a 1-5 start in Big Ten action to a position in the league's postseason showcase with one week to play.

"We let a couple of those games get away," Korte said. "We could've won a majority of those. ... The only way you can get into the (NCAA) tournament is making the Big Ten tournament. Our goal is to win the Big Ten."

Even if that doesn't transpire, there's already been discussion about Illinois both making the NCAAs as an at-large program and hosting a regional.

The former seems to be on firmer ground than the latter. So if Sunday's regular-season home finale also was the 2019 home finale, it was a good way for the Illini to go out.

"We played very well at home," Hartleb said. "I love playing here. ... It's truly a great place to play."