Illinois pitchers shut down U hitters in sweep

Todd Zolecki

A member of Illinois’ baseball team scanned the Gophers media guide Sunday in search of one thing following its 9-4 win at Siebert Field, which clinched a four-game sweep for the Illini.
After flipping through several pages, he found the information he wanted.
“Hey, Minnesota hasn’t been swept here since 1985,” he said to his teammates, who gathered their things by the Illinois dugout. “The last team to do it was us.”
Illinois players couldn’t believe it, and Coach Itch Jones said if somebody had offered him a series split before Friday he might have accepted it.
Entering the series, the Illini wanted to win three. As it turned out, a combination of strong pitching and hitting made the sweep look rather easy.
Illinois felt a momentum shift Friday night when it won 5-4 after trailing 3-2 in the top half of the eighth inning. Designated hitter Dan O’Neill hit a two-run home run off relief pitcher Ted Zrust to take a one-run lead. The Gophers tied it in the bottom of that inning, but Illinois second baseman D.J. Svihilk hit a solo homer off Zrust in the top of the ninth to win the game.
Zrust hadn’t allowed a home run all season prior to Friday’s outing.
“I really haven’t had a good year,” O’Neill said. “I haven’t come through all season. I just started to break out this week, and I saw the ball real well on that one. I really don’t remember it. I just remember watching it go out.”
O’Neill picked a perfect series to break out of a season-long slump. He entered the weekend hitting .216 and striking out about once every four at-bats. His solid play typified the Illini weekend.
He went 4 for 8 and drove in six runs, half as many as Minnesota amassed during the four games.
Jones was glad to see the bottom of his lineup produce throughout the weekend, and O’Neill and Svihilk were among the key contributors.
“We got up at the right time because it’s do or die,” O’Neill said. “Minnesota is always a fun place to play, and we get up for them.”
The Illini’s pitching staff certainly did. Gophers coach John Anderson gave Illinois’ pitching staff much of the credit for the sweep. They held the Gophers to 25 hits in 119 at-bats, six points below O’Neill’s average entering the series.
“We did really well,” Illini pitcher Cody Salter said, who held Minnesota to one run in game three on Saturday. “They seemed to take a lot of pitches, especially early in the count. We’d get ahead in the count 0-1 or 0-2 and try to get them off the plate. We were able to get them.
“We’ve had weekends when we’ve hit, but the pitching didn’t come through. And we’ve had weekends when we pitched well but the hitting didn’t come through. But everything came together this weekend.”
Jones agreed it couldn’t have come at a better time. Illinois sat in eighth place in the conference before the weekend.
The way Illinois has played at points this season, Jones said, it could have easily lost all four games. He pointed to his experiences as a coach at Southern Illinois more than 20 years ago to explain some of his recent success at Siebert.
Jones’ team won an NCAA regional against the Gophers at Siebert in 1974, which put Jones in the College World Series.
That feat might be unattainable for Illinois this year, but it hopes to be a contender in the Big Ten tournament.
“Our team has been up and down, and that’s just what happens,” O’Neill said.