Illinois Drops Iowa in Series Opener

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May 9, 2014

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IOWA CITY, Iowa — Illinois took advantage of its opportunities; the University of Iowa baseball team did not, which resulted in a 4-1 Fighting Illini victory Friday afternoon at Duane Banks Field.

“We challenged them in six or seven innings, and we had opportunities,” said UI head coach Rick Heller. “Illinois had a good day as far as catching some breaks. It was a tough loss for us, but I thought our guys played hard and played well today.”

Iowa scored the game’s first run, using three hits in the first to jump out to a 1-0 lead. Junior Eric Toole led off the inning with a double down the left field line before junior Jake Manger singled to put runners on the corners. Following a double play, junior Jake Yacinich delivered a two-out RBI double into the right center field gap, giving the Hawkeyes a 1-0 lead.

Iowa had opportunities early and often, leaving eight runners on base, including six in scoring position, in the first five innings. The Hawkeyes had runners at second and third base with one out in the second, but came away empty when Illinois starter Drasen Johnson got a strikeout and groundout to end the threat.

The Hawkeyes continued getting chances, stranding a pair of base runners in the third, a runner at second in the fourth and two on in the fifth, but each time Johnson was up to the challenge.

“We did a good job offensively early against Johnson, but we couldn’t get a hit to fall,” said Heller. “We had a couple of balls that just missed the line that would have driven in runs, but we just couldn’t get a hit.”

In his first career Big Ten start, sophomore Blake Hickman was dominant over the first four innings, striking out five of the first six batters he faced, while holding the Illini hitless through 4 2/3 innings. Ryan Nagle tallied Illinois’ first hit with two outs in the fifth, stole second, advanced to third on a wild pitch and scored on an Adam Walton RBI single.

Illinois then grabbed the lead in the sixth, courtesy of a walk and two hits. With one out, Hickman walked Matthew James on four pitches before David Kerian singled to left field to put two runners on. Iowa elected to go to the bullpen, bringing in Nick Hibbing in relief, but the right-hander’s first pitch plunked Jason Goldstein to load the bases.

After Hibbing recorded the second out, Illinois’ Casey Fletcher hit a jam-shot single over the head of Nick Day at third into shallow left field to drive in a pair of runs and give the Illini a 3-1 lead. Iowa put two runners on in the bottom of the seventh before Tyler Jay entered in relief put an end to the threat with a pair of strikeouts.

Illinois pushed its final run across the plate in the ninth. Fletcher and Ryne Roper led off the frame with consecutive singles before Fletcher crossed the plate on an errant throw by Yacinich when trying to complete 3-6-3 double play.

Jay pitched the final 2 2/3 innings to earn his eighth save of the season. He struck out five of the nine batters he faced. Johnson (5-5) earned the victory, allowing one run on seven hits in 6 1/3, finishing with seven strikeouts against two walks.

Hickman (2-2) was tagged with the loss, allowing three runs on three hits in a career-best 5 1/3 innings. He had a career-high nine strikeouts, while issuing three walks. Hibbing allowed one run on three hits in 2 2/3 with four strikeouts, while sophomore Jared Mandel allowed a single hit in one inning.

“Hickman deserved a win,” said Heller. “He was outstanding, went deep into the game, deeper than we anticipated. It’s a sign of the future of what he is going to be as he gets more innings on the mound and more experience.”

Toole and Yacinich accounted for five of Iowa’s seven hits. Yacinich went 3-for-4 with an RBI and stole his 24th base, while Toole went 2-for-5 with a run scored for his 20th multi-hit game of the season.

Game two of the series will begin Saturday morning at 11 a.m. (CT). The contest will be televised live on the Big Ten Network with Kevin Kugler and Scott Pose on the call.

Illinois 4, Iowa 1 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 R H E
Illinois (28-17, 14-5) 0 0 0 0 1 2 0 0 1 4 7 3
Iowa (27-18, 8-11) 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 7 1
Game Decision
W: Johnson (ILL) 5-5
L: Hickman (IOWA) 2-2
S: Jay (ILL) 8