Something about the sixth inning seemed to kick-start Illinois against the MSU baseball team this weekend.
The Spartans led heading into the bottom of the sixth inning in all three games against the Illini this weekend but only were able to hold on for one win for the weekend in Champaign, Ill.
The Spartans now are 24-12 overall and 7-5 in the Big Ten, which still has them in first place — tied with Purdue and Ohio State — but the Spartans know they missed opportunities to make some space in the standings.
“Lately, we’ve been struggling in the last couple innings for some reason,” sophomore second baseman Ryan Jones said. “I don’t know if it’s a lack of focus or a lack of executing but it’s definitely disappointing because we felt like we should have won all three games, having the lead that late in the game.”
MSU gave up 14 runs from the sixth inning on over the weekend. After splitting a doubleheader Saturday, MSU held a 4-3 lead heading to the bottom of the sixth Sunday, thanks to a three-run home run from Jones — who extended his hitting streak to 25 games — followed by a solo shot from senior first baseman Jeff Holm.
But the Illini (14-21, 6-6) loaded the bases against redshirt freshman pitcher Chase Rihtarchik and chased him after a walk. MSU used three pitchers in the inning as Illinois put up six runs and took a 9-4 lead. MSU scored four in the top of the seventh, but Illinois hit a two-out-two-run home run in the bottom of the inning and held on for an 11-8 win.
“When guys start missing up in the strike zone, they get hurt,” head coach Jake Boss Jr. said. “That’s exactly what happened. We were one pitch away from a ground ball double play and couldn’t keep the ball down. Fastballs were belt-high and they got hit pretty hard.”
The Spartans and Illini were supposed to begin their series Friday, but rain postponed the game, making Saturday a doubleheader.
In the first game, the Spartans built an early 4-0 lead, scoring three in the first inning and one in the second. But the Illini tied the game in the bottom of the fourth thanks to back-to-back home runs off senior pitcher Kurt Wunderlich.
MSU grabbed the lead with a run in the fifth and used small ball to open its lead in the seventh. The Spartans sent eight to the plate in the seventh inning, scoring three runs thanks to three hits and two walks, as they took an 8-4 lead at the seventh-inning stretch.
The Illini tacked on one run in the bottom of the inning, but the Spartans held on for the 8-5 win. Picking up the win, Wunderlich moved to 7-1 on the season. It was his 23rd career win, tying him for third all-time in program history.
In the second game of the day, MSU took a 2-0 lead thanks to a home run by Holm in the fourth inning and an RBI double from sophomore outfielder Tony Wieber in the fifth.
Junior pitcher Tony Bucciferro gave up just one hit through the first five innings but gave up a run in the sixth and allowed three in the seventh as Wieber took over in relief. Wieber also gave up a run as Illinois put up four in the inning to take a 5-2 lead. Illinois pitcher John Anderson held on, pitching a complete game as the Illini won.
Halfway through the Big Ten season, the Spartans still control their fate as they look for their first Big Ten championship since 1979. But the Spartans have missed opportunities in the last two weekends.
“We’re feeling pressure from other teams, but I feel like we should relax a bit because we are in first place for a reason,” Holm said. “We’re that good. We just have to play Michigan State baseball.”
Do you want the news without having to hunt for it?
Sign up for our morning s'newsletter. It's everything your friends are talking about and then some. And it's free!
Share and discuss “Spartans struggle late against Fighting Illini” on social media.