Illinois' David Kerian

Illinois first baseman David Kerian (Kendall Rogers)

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Dispatches From Champaign, May 29

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — For about half an hour, it looked like Ohio was going to hang with Illinois, fitting in with the nationwide trend of four-seeds at least scaring their regional hosts. Kevin Duchene didn’t have his best command, and the Bobcat hitters seemed to have the measure of Illinois’ lefty ace — the lefties laying off the chase slider off the outside corner, making him get more of the plate than he was used to. And sometimes it worked — in the top of the second, Duchene ran an 0-1 slider right into John Adryan’s power zone and the Bobcat third baseman flopped it right on over the left-field fence for a 2-1 lead.

“We were all pretty pumped,” Ohio outfielder Mitch Longo said. “I mean, you hit a home run and you … take a lead on a team as good as Illinois at home, I feel like the momentum changed there for a little bit, and we were feeling good. But we had to keep our blinders on and continue to put more runs up, because we knew that one run wasn’t going to beat this team with their caliber of offense.”

But that sensation — fragile and beautiful though it was, like a butterfly, or a souffle — was short-lived. Because Ohio sent Jake Miller, probably the Bobcats’ best starting pitcher, out to shut down the Illinois offense, and you could be tempted to say that the Illini plastered him, but they didn’t. They put a hammer through the drywall, then patched it, spackled and repainted it. Then they punched a hole in it again, and then set fire to the house. Miller allowed six runs in two innings without striking a batter out, and after Illinois mopped up a tidy 10-3 win — including a brief rain delay — in two hours and 44 minutes.

Miller, who set down the first two batters of the game in as many pitches, both on tame grounders, then let up a tape measure shot to Reid Roper and retired Jason Goldstein on a sharp grounder to short. Then, in the second inning, the Illini busted the game open on a three-run home run by David Kerian, and by the end of the fifth inning, five more runners had poured across home plate, like the mine explosion and massive troop advance that started the Battle of the Somme.

Duchene, in what head coach Dan Hartleb called his worst start of the year, went the distance for the first time in 2015, plugging through nine innings on 114 pitches, striking out only one (a season low) while allowing three walks (setting a new season high) and three earned runs (tying a season high).

“Kevin’s a battler,” Hartleb said. “If you’ve seen Kevin on a regular basis, he usually has command of three to four pitches down in the zone, both sides of the plate, ahead in the count all the time. And he basically had none of that tonight. He battled to throw strikes tonight, but he came up with key pitches at the right times, and his mentality is just always finding ways to win.”

Even though he only pitched badly by his own lofty standards, Duchene credited his teammates in large measure for helping him turn what could’ve been a disaster into a complete game in a critical situation.

“Well, first and foremost, I have to say that playing behind 10 runs made it a lot easier to battle through,” Duchene said. “The defense and the hitting was outstanding tonight. I would say a couple of really key plays were the double plays that we turned, those quick innings where it was four or five pitches, they were crucial in my success tonight.”

The weird thing about Duchene’s start is not that he struggled — it’s the end of a long year, and nobody goes through an entire season pitching as well as he had without hiccups — but how mortal he seemed against lefties, a group of hitters he’s tormented all season long.

Two of Ohio’s lefthanded hitters, Longo and Manny DeJesus, combined to reach base five times in eight plate appearances. A third Ohio lefty, Jake Madsen, went 1-for-4 and rolled over on three pitches in the first five innings, leading to an inning-ending groundout, an inning-ending double play and an RBI groundout that would’ve been an inning-ending double play had Longo not barreled into second base just ahead of the throw. Nevertheless, Madsen, who smoked a single up the middle in his fourth at-bat, took excellent at-bats in order to get to the unfortunate terminal stage in all cases. This was thanks to a specific plan to deal with Duchene’s primary weapon, the slider off the outside corner.

“I figured that his slider has a lot of movement, that it’s going to break,” Longo said. “So I figured that if I saw it at my belt, it’s going to fall off, that it wasn’t going to fall in for a strike. After my first at-bat he fooled me with it, so after that one I tried to see his slider a little more up in the zone, and if not, I was just looking fastball primarily, and I’d just adjust as the count went on.”

“You know what? I’m actually really proud of what our offense did tonight,” Ohio head coach Rob Smith said. “We racked up seven hits and three runs. If you look back, I don’t think there have been a lot of teams that have scored three runs against Kevin. He’s an outstanding pitcher.”

But in a format in which pitching depth is everything, and on the back of a MAC tournament victory predicated largely on starting pitching, Ohio didn’t have enough — Illinois just kept getting men on and never let up for a moment.

“They force you to execute,” Smith said. “There wasn’t a lot of easy outs. If you look at their at-bats, even some of the outs were hard line drives, hard ground balls — I didn’t see them get pulled out in front too often. They do a really good job just staying connected with home plate and really forcing you to execute pitches.”

Hartleb was extremely pleased — if not entirely surprised — by how his players reacted to the unexpected early deficit, and how quickly they erased it.

“This team is unbelievable. They never panic, never panic,” he said. “If you look back at, I would guess even when we went on the streak, if you look back, there’s probably a third of the games this year where we’ve been behind after one or two innings and we just — the guys just answered the bell. There’s no panic in this group at all. It’s complete composure. They stay loose. They are very focused and so there was absolutely no panic again.”

Ohio will send Jake Rudnicki, backed up by closer Logan Cozart, to stave off elimination against Wright State, while Illinois will start Drasen Johnson against Notre Dame in the late game.

Notre Dame 13, Wright State 7

“We always talk about first to seven,” said Wright State head coach Greg Lovelady. “We get seven runs, we usually win those types of games.”

To be fair, Lovelady’s team, which came into the tournament with a 41-15 record (21-2 in the Horizon League), wins most games, no matter what type. And when the wind’s blowing out to center field with a ferocity that’ll tear the terra-cotta shingles off the roof of a beach house, getting to seven first might not be enough.

“Yesterday we came out and took BP and there definitely wasn’t four home runs in yesterday’s wind,” said Notre Dame head coach Mik Aoki.

Somewhat oddly for a team that came into the regional with only 45 home runs, and with a groundball-heavy, pitch-to-contact-type staff, Notre Dame outlasted Wright State in a slugfest, pounding four home runs and five doubles off four Raider pitchers en route to a 13-7 win.

Lovelady led off the game not with ace Jesse Scholtens, but with righty Luke Mamer, with the intention of patching together enough quality innings to win by changing pitchers every couple times through the lineup. The plan worked perfectly through 2 2/3 innings, as Mamer blazed through Notre Dame’s lineup the first time through, while his teammates teed off on Irish starter Scott Kerrigan.

Kerrigan pitched into his defense in the first inning, but in the second and third, the Raiders stopped chasing his slider down in the zone and waiting for the fastball up. Kerrigan’s not a big swing-and-miss guy anyway, so when Wright State’s hitters started laying off pitches low, Notre Dame’s plan went to pieces.

“We knew the balls he left up were going to be straight and the balls he was throwing a little lower were going to have a little sink to it,” said Wright State shortstop Mitch Roman. “He’s a sinkerball pitcher. That’s his forte — to get ground balls throwing low. We were just laying off those and waiting for pitches that were elevated, so we could hit them, and we did. We hit him pretty good.”

The Raiders tagged Kerrigan for two runs in the second and another in the third, and it could’ve been worse had two second-inning line drives not hit people before leaving the infield. With two men on, left fielder Matt Morrow nailed his teammate Ryan Fucci in the small of the back with a line drive, which led to Fucci being called out and Roman, who could’ve scored had the ball gotten through, being recalled to second base. After John Brodner’s two-run triple, Andrew McCafferty hit a ball right back to the box that would’ve gone to center and scored another run had it not struck Kerrigan, who put him out at first to end the inning.

The Raiders’ complete lack of fear that Kerrigan could get them to swing and miss opened up tactical options, such as the hit-and-run, that pulled Notre Dame defenders out of position and allowed hard grounders to get through holes in the Golden Domers’ phenomenal infield defense. With two outs in the bottom of the third, it looked like the Irish were on their way to being routed.

Then, after having completed one full circuit of the lineup, Mamer allowed five consecutive two-out hits, including two doubles, to plate four runs. It would’ve been six had Lane Richards’ would-be home run not been pulled back by a leaping Morrow to end the inning.

“I think it’s always big to see a pitcher more than once,” said Irish left fielder Ryan Bull, who was Notre Dame’s offensive standout, going 3-for-4 with a home run, two doubles, four RBI and a HBP. “I think the second time we went through the lineup, we were just more prepared and had more information. And we were able to just stick to a better approach, work the opposite way with all of his pitches because he wasn’t going to beat you with velocity and if you were a little bit early, you were able to pull something.”

After relievers E.J. Trapino (Wright State) and Scott Tully (Notre Dame) were able to stabilize the game, both teams traded one-run frames in the sixth and two-run frames in the seventh, before the Irish teed up righty sidearmer Logan Blair for six runs in the bottom of the eighth. That’s when Notre Dame really started to take advantage of the wind, which turned medium-depth fly balls into two-stage rockets.

“When the wind is blowing out to dead center, it really helps to both sides of the field to really take advantage of it. I mean, if you can put it up in the jetstream and hit it decently hard, it will probably go,” Brodner said.

And so it did twice in that inning for Notre Dame — once for Cavan Biggio, who went oppo for three runs off the top of the wall, and again for Robert Youngdahl for two runs to bring the score to 13-6. And as it became increasingly clear that Lovelady was going to conserve his bullpen and let Blair wear it, the hit parade took on the character of a barrage.

McCafferty led off the top of the ninth with the game’s sixth home run, and it’s no exaggeration to say that 10 or more balls could’ve left the park — a fifth-inning foul ball by Ryan Lidge went out by the cemetery across the street, and if it was, in fact, foul, it wasn’t foul by much. Brodner’s triple was only a couple feet from leaving the yard, and several other doubles and fly outs reached the warning track easily.

But that was all the Raiders — now condemned to the losers’ bracket — could muster. Ryan Smoyer will start for Notre Dame tomorrow against Illinois, while Wright State faces a loser-leaves-town tilt with Ohio.

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