Illini Fall Short In Drive For Omaha; Pitcher Jay Taken 6th In Draft
The Illini baseball season has ended, two wins short of a trip to the College World Series. Defending national champion Vanderbilt won Monday 4-2, taking the NCAA Super Regional two games to none, and returns to Omaha this weekend.
But Illinois Coach Dan Hartleb says the baseball program made strides, and his players had team chemistry both on and off the field.
"I think the thing that was so enjoyable was the fact that we had a group of guys that… they got along so well,” he said. “You didn’t have to micromanage them. It wasn’t begging them to do the right things. You put things in front of them, you ask them to do certain things, they get it done.”
The Illini season ends with a new team high in wins, with 50. The team’s 27-game winning streak set a Big Ten record. The team also hosted its first ever NCAA Regional and Super Regional.
Outfielder Casey Fletcher realizes his team achieved a lot, but wasn’t ready to see it end.
“You know, it was a special year,” he said. “You know, these guys are my brothers and it’s just tough going down like that, just knowing that we thought we an Omaha bound team. And we fought all year – we did a lot of great things, and I’m very proud of these guys.”
Unlike Saturday’s 13-0 rout by the Commodores, it was a tight ballgame Monday, with Illinois scoring early and leading 2-1 after three innings. Fletcher was in the thick of that action, hitting a first inning sacrifice fly, and doubling in the third, scoring on a base hit by Pat McInerney.
But Vanderbilt first baseman Zander Wiel and shortstop Danbsy Swanson hit two solo homers off starter and losing pitcher Tyler Jay, in just the second start of his Illini career.
With the game tied 2-2, the Commodores went ahead for good with a run in the 6th inning on center fielder Bryan Reynolds’ RBI single, knocking in shortstop Dansby Swanson, who had doubled to lead off the inning. Vanderbilt tacked on one more an inning later with a squeeze bunt.
Jay pitched 6 1/3 innings, allowing 4 runs on 10 hits. He struck out 6 and walked none. Vanderbilt winning pitcher Philip Pfeifer allowed two runs in 6 2/3 innings. Commodores reliever Kyle Wright pitched the final 1 2/3rds (in relief of Ben Bowden), allowing no hits and striking out two.
Nick Blackburn came in for Jay in the 7th inning, allowing one hit in his 1 2/3 innings of relief. The Illini loaded the bases with one out in the eighth, but couldn’t push a run across. They went down in order in the 9th inning.
Shortly after the game, Jay learned he’d been drafted by the Minnesota Twins. The sixth pick in the Major League Draft, he’s the highest-ever draft pick in Illinois history. He called it a day of mixed emotions.
“We’ve got incredible fans here,” he said. “People you learn over three years that have been supporting you and helping you out, and helping the team. It’s just something that you’re going to have to get over eventually, but it’s definitely going to be hard and something that I won’t forget.”
Jay said he and his teammates gathered in the clubhouse to learn the news.
“You know, it’s really special when you start, and you lose the game a little bit, and they’re kinda there, and they’re just as excited as we would have been if we won, so it’s really nice,” he said. “You know that my teammates really love me, and I love them too. So it’s a special feeling.”
It was just the second time Jay has started a game in his Illinois career. But the Lemont native and Big Ten Pitcher of the Year says he’s open to starting, or pitching out of the bullpen as he begins his professional career.
Jay says he expects a ‘good amount’ of his teammates to follow him in the draft in the coming days.
A number of scouts were in attendance for the 2-game regional at Illinois Field. Vanderbilt shortstop Dansby Swanson was the top pick in the country by Arizona, learning the news minutes after the game ended.
Commodores pitcher Carson Fulmer was the 8th overall pick by the White Sox, and Vanderbilt pitcher Walker Beuhler was selected 24th Monday by the Los Angeles Dodgers.
(Pictured: Illini Pitcher Kevin Duchene looks on as the game ends at Illinois Field Monday. Vanderbilt won the series 2 games to none.)