CHAMPAIGN — Zac Taylor will remember this moment for some time. So will his Illinois baseball teammates and those in attendance who stuck around late Friday night at Illinois Field.
Taylor, the Illini center fielder, pulled a walk-off three-run home run over the left field fence to give Illinois a 5-2 win in 12 innings against Purdue.
"I have no hair left, I can tell you," Illinois coach Dan Hartleb said. "It was just a great college baseball game. Zac has a little bit of swag to him, and he's been really valuable for us and done a great job."
Backs against the wall, Illinois came out swinging in the ninth inning down 2-1 and needing at least one run to force extra innings.
Taylor went first, foul-tipping four consecutive pitches before lining a single directly up the middle to lead off the frame.
Two outs later, Jack Yalowitz took his turn and connected for a hit that plopped safely into left-center field and scored Taylor for the tying run to send the well-pitched game into extra innings.
Seven different Illini would finish with a hit in the series opener against Purdue, but it wasn't until Taylor stepped back up to the plate again in the bottom of the 12th that the home team finally got what it needed.
Taylor's home run, Illinois' only extra-base hit, carried past the outfield fence to send the Illinois dugout into a frenzy and out to mob Taylor at home plate after Yalowitz threw out Purdue's Skyler Hunter at home plate in the top of the 12th to keep the game tied at 2.
"Both sides did some things really well," Hartleb said. "The 12th inning was an unbelievable inning. Yalowitz made a great throw in and we get a guy bang-bang at the plate."
Leading into the weekend series, Purdue (19-29, 7-11 Big Ten) and Illinois (32-16, 11-8) had walked polar opposite paths through conference play.
Whereas the Illini dropped their first two series before roaring back to take the next four in Big Ten play, the Boilermakers started with a pair of wins before losing four straight league series.
And that trend seemed on its way to continuing after Friday night's extra-innings opener.
With a bat in his hands, freshman shortstop Branden Comia made the first dent for Illinois with a hit in the leadoff spot when he hit a floater into shallow left field.
Not only did the hit help snap a 15 1 / 3 inning scoreless streak for Purdue starter Trent Johnson when Centennial graduate Kellen Sarver brought Comia home later in the inning with a single to put Illinois up 1-0, it was just Comia's second hit since April 15.
Johnson, though, didn't make it easy on the Illini for the rest of the way, limiting them to just three more hits against five strikeouts over seven innings on the mound. It took a near-equal effort from Illinois starter Andy Fisher, who contained the Boilermakers to just one run on seven hits, in his 7 1 / 3 innings in charge.
"It was a well-pitched game on both sides," Hartleb said. "Both starters made it very difficult. The relievers came in and got out of a couple jams, but did a good job."
For Fisher, it was a continuation of what he did last Friday night when he stifled Indiana en route to earning Big Ten pitching honors of the week.
"If you look at the Big Ten, especially this year, Friday night starters are really good," Hartleb said. "You've got to have somebody who can match up with those guys, and Andy has been unbelievable the entire year. He keeps getting better and better. It's comforting to know you're going to get a quality start each and every time out and have an opportunity in the later part of the game with a chance to win."
Only once the duel between Friday night starters fizzled out in the eighth inning did the offenses finally find their respective openings in the ninth, with Purdue using a trio of bunts to score the go-ahead run against Illinois closer Garrett Acton.
Acton, who leads the nation and holds the program's single-season record with 16 saves, had to overcome a pair of wild pitches and a walk to escape the inning, but his offense provided support and forced the game into extra innings with a 2-all tie.
Sean Leland earned the win on the mound, compiling four strikeouts and allowing just two hits in the final two innings for Illinois. Taylor and freshman Jacob Campbell each finished with two hits in a heart-stopping win that Illinois will use to move up the Big Ten standings.
"We have two Big Ten weekends left and the Big Ten tournament," Hartleb said. "The committee looks at what you do late in the year, so we need to do a good job of building the resume, both with wins and RPI as we approach tournament time."