By JAMES ALLAN
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Freshman Justin Jenkins’ ninth-inning, game-saving catch sent the University of Iowa baseball team to a 6-5, series-opening victory over Illinois on Thursday night at Illinois Field.
The Fighting Illini had the game-tying run at third base with two outs when Mark Skonieczny stepped to the plate against Iowa closer Josh Martsching. Skonieczny laced a 1-2 pitch into the right center field gap, but Jenkins — who entered the game as a ninth-inning defensive replacement — made a diving grab to end the game and keep the Hawkeyes’ Big Ten regular-season title hopes alive.
“It was an amazing catch,” said UI head coach Rick Heller. “He’s a great defender in center field. To walk off the bench and make that play; it was pretty amazing and definitely a game-saver for us.
“It was a great college baseball game. It was exciting; I am proud of our guys, they kept fighting.”
Three of the top four teams in the standings — Nebraska, Michigan, and Indiana — all lost Friday. Minnesota trailed 5-2 when the game was stopped in Minneapolis because of a power outage. Iowa is 14-8 in Big Ten play and is still mathematically alive in the title chase.
With the wind blowing out, balls were leaving Illinois Field at a rapid pace early. The two teams combined for eight home runs in the game — all solo shots — over the first six frames.
Illinois grabbed a 1-0 lead in the first off an unearned run before sophomore Robert Neustrom led off the second inning with a solo shot down the right field line to tie the game. The Fighting Illini answered, getting back-to-back home runs in the second from Bren Spillane and Trent Hammond to take a 3-1 lead.
In the third, the Hawkeyes one-upped Illinois, using back-to-back-to-back jacks to take a 4-2 lead. Senior Mason McCoy hit a one-out solo home run to left field before junior Jake Adams followed with a solo shot to left field to tie the game at three. Neustrom then connected on his second blast of the game, giving Iowa a 4-3 lead.
Adams’ home run was his 22nd of the season, tying John Knapp for the Iowa single-season school record that has stood since 1986. The South Dakota native now has six home runs over his last five games.
McCoy’s home run was his fourth of the season and Neustrom’s were his sixth and seventh, giving him his first career two home run game.
“Back-to-back-to-back home runs, Jake tying the school record, Illinois hitting four home runs… it was a crazy game,” said Heller.
The Hawkeyes added two key insurance runs in the fourth to stretch their advantage to 6-3. Following a Ben Norman walk and Mitchell Boe single, McCoy delivered an RBI single to left field and Adams followed with a sacrifice fly to extend the lead to three runs.
Illinois cut the deficit to 6-4 in the fourth on a Doran Turchin solo home run. The center fielder and nine-hole hitter added a second solo shot in the sixth, making it a one-run game.
The Fighting Illini threatened in the eighth before Iowa’s ninth-inning heroics. Illinois loaded the bases with one out, but Martsching got out of the jam when, getting Jack Yalowitz to hit into a 4-6-3 double play to end the inning.
Junior Nick Gallagher (8-1) allowed five runs (four earned) on seven hits to pick up his eighth win of the season. He had five strikeouts to two walks in the game. Junior Nick Nelsen pitched 1 1/3 shutout innings before Martsching got the final five outs to pick up his sixth save.
Three Hawkeyes — McCoy (2-for-5, two RBIs), Neustrom (2-for-5, two RBIs, two HRs), and Boe (2-for-3, run) — had six of Iowa’s seven hits. McCoy, Adams, and Neustrom had two RBIs apiece and McCoy ran his reached base streak to 25 games.
With rain in the forecast Saturday, the two teams will play a Friday doubleheader beginning at 2 p.m. (CT).