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Illini Take Regional, Host Defending CWS Champs This Weekend

Illini relief pitcher Tyler Jay delivers during Monday's 8-4 defeat of Wright State at Illinois Field.  Jay pitched four scoreless innings in his only appearance of the NCAA regional.

Illini relief pitcher Tyler Jay delivers during Monday's 8-4 defeat of Wright State at Illinois Field. Jay pitched four scoreless innings in his only appearance of the NCAA regional. (WILL staff photos)

The Illini baseball team has already set a series of records this season, but the players say they’ve got their eyes on one goal – the College World Series in Omaha.  They’re two wins away after Monday’s 8-4 defeat of Wright State, winning a regional title for the first time. 

If the Illini don’t win another game this season, they’ve already made marks with 50 wins - the most in school history, and a 27-game winning streak, the longest in Big Ten History. 

Senior Will Krug – one of Monday’s hitting stars -  says all that – plus the regional win is still sinking in.

“It’s kinda surreal," he said.  "I don’t know, maybe it will hit us soon, but right now, it’s just, just awesome.”

One of the big reasons the Illini are where they are is the relief pitching of Tyler Jay, who threw four scoreless innings to close out Wright State Monday, a game Illinois trailed early, but they later rallied for their 25th comeback win of the year. 

Jay, the Big Ten Pitcher of the Year, said his team is a confident bunch.

“Our hitters trust the pitching, and the pitching trusts our hitters," he said.  "So if we’re down – we know as a pitching staff, that if we get through this inning, odds are, we’re going to put up some runs, and they know if they don’t score some runs, that we’re going out there and shut down the next inning.”

Half the wins this season involved Illinois coming from behind, and Monday was no different.  They trailed 2-0 in the third, ralled in the 5th, only to see the Raiders tie it an inning later.

Krug put his team in front for good with a 2-run double after an intentional walk to David Kerian.

“We got a veteran team," he said.  "Guys that have been around.  I think it’s that kind of mentality – and just how we practice, and what not, that even when it gets later in the games, even if we’re down, there’s no panic, there’s never been panic in the dugout.  And we know we’re going to get our job done.  It’s just a matter of when.”

Photo: Jeff Bossert

Krug's double also led to the ejection of Wright State Coach Greg Lovelady, who protested the rough slide by Kerian into Wright State catcher Sean Murphy, suggesting Kerian should be ejected.  He was tagged out on the play.  Wright State shortstop Mitch Roman was also ejected after the play for comments made to Bennett.       

At the plate, Krug was 3-for-4 with 2 RBI's.  The 7-9 hitters in the lineup did the most damage, driving in 6 of the 8 runs.

On the mound, reliever J.D. Nielsen replaced starter John Kravetz in the 5th inning, getting out of a bases-loaded jam before Jay made his first apperance of the NCAA regional, allowing one hit in his four innings, striking out five and walking one.

The Ilini got some insurance runs in the 9th inning, two of them on a home run to right by Big Ten Player of the Year David Kerian.

Coach Dan Hartleb says his team has never been caught up in one win or loss, going about their business, and improving daily.

“And you talk about the process of what it takes to be a champion," he said.  "And these guys have done all the right things to win some championships.  And I know when it’s all said and done, we’re going to be proud of the championships that we’ve won to this point.  But this group has been businesslike.”

Photo: Jeff Bossert

Up next – the Illini host a Super Regional this weekend at Illinois Field, a best of three format.  Their opponent –  last year’s College World Series champion, the Vanderbilt Commodores, who scored 21 runs to win their regional over Radford Monday.

Hartleb said there’s no question the Commodores are a great team, but the Illini are up to the challenge.

“You just have to go up, and have a solid approach, and swing at balls in the zone, and we’ll be in great shape," he said.  "It’s going to be a great super regional, and that’s what it’s all about.  You have to beat good people to get to the top, and that’s what we’re going out to accomplish.”

First baseman David Kerian (above, right) pumped his fist in celebration Monday after cathing the last out of Monday's win.

Games are schedule to begin Saturday in the best of three format, running through Monday, if necessary.  Weekend game times were announced Tuesday morning - they're at 7 p.m. Saturday and 8 p.m. Sunday, and will be broadcast on ESPNU.  Tickets go on sale Tuesday morning at Fighting