Things hadn’t really been going according to plan for Southern Illinois.
In a season where they brought back just about everyone from a team that won 31 games in 2016, the Salukis were off to a 9-7 start coming into this weekend. Certainly that’s not a start that anyone would consider disastrous, but for a team that looked poised to challenge for the Missouri Valley Conference crown, it wasn’t the start they were hoping for.
Then, they arrived in Champaign for the tournament this weekend, and things promptly got worse. On Friday, they dropped an 8-7 decision to 2-14 Toledo, giving up a lead twice along the way. On Saturday, they came back out and looked listless in a 10-2 loss to those same Toledo Rockets. In the latter game, they managed just four hits off of a Toledo staff that came into the weekend with a 6.21 ERA, and they folded up like a tent in the top of the eighth inning when the Rockets plated seven runs, four of which were unearned.
Suddenly, the Salukis had fallen to .500 at 9-9 and they had supplied the now 4-15 Rockets with half of their wins on the season, now about one-third of the way through.
It’s still early enough in the season you can say “there’s plenty of baseball left” and actually mean it. Teams often take the first third or half of a season to get things figured out and then turn it on at the right time. With that said, this really felt like a pivotal moment in SIU’s season.
On a cold, gray, dreary day at Illinois Field, they looked destined to go out against an Illinois team that hadn’t just been beaten soundly on that very field and take another loss. After all, what about their performance in the first game gave any indication that they could compete against the Illini, a far more talented team than Toledo?
But instead, SIU got up off the mat, fought back, and took it to Illinois in an 8-5 win.
It was supposed to be a classic pitcher’s duel between SIU’s Michael Baird and Illinois freshman Ty Weber, but it didn’t work out that way.
Weber didn’t get much help from his defense and SIU did a fantastic job of manufacturing runs without hitting the ball all that hard, but when it was all said and done, it was far from his best day on the hill. He threw 6.1 innings, giving up seven hits and seven runs (four earned) with three walks and four strikeouts. Ultimately, it was big innings that did him in.
After his team staked him to a 2-0 lead heading into the third, SIU came back with a three-spot in that third frame. With one out, Ryan Sabo lifted a ball into left field that cut through the stiff wind moving left to right for a solo homer. Behind him, Dyllin Mucha doubled into the left field corner. From there, the Salukis scored two more runs, but no batted ball left the infield.
Mucha stole third and leadoff hitter Connor Kopach drew a walk. After Kopach stole second, Will Farmer drove in a run with an RBI groundout to shortstop, which also moved Kopach to third. That allowed Kopach to come in to score when Greg Lambert legged out an RBI infield single. Suddenly, the Salukis led 3-2.
They added a fourth run in the fourth, but the Illini came back to tie it at four with two runs in the bottom half thanks to a Jack Yalowitz two-run homer.
Come the top of the seventh, it was another SIU big inning, and this one was the decider.
Four runs came across in that top half of the seventh on a balk, a groundout, an infield single, and a wild pitch. It wasn’t the prettiest rally you’ll ever see, but it sure was effective. For SIU head coach Ken Henderson, the offensive production was perhaps the sign of strides being made by his team as the season has gone on.
“I just told our club, I think, for the first time maybe all year, I saw guys making an effort to make an adjustment (at the plate). That was exciting for us. And we barreled up a lot more balls because of it,” he said.
On the other side, Baird was a guy who came into the game having not given up a single earned run all season over 28 innings of work.
That streak ended pretty quickly on Saturday, as the Illini plated a run on four singles in the bottom of the first inning, and then added a run in the second, two in the fourth, and one in the seventh. Thanks to his efficiency and willingness to battle, though, he was still able to get his team deep into the game, throwing eight innings, giving up ten hits and five runs (three earned) with no walks and three strikeouts.
That’s not the prettiest stat line, particularly when you came into the game with a 0.00 ERA, but the righty was effective overall. He limited Illinois to single runs in the first and second when things easily could have gotten out of hand early on, and he was around the plate all night, daring the Illini hitters to beat him.
“To be honest, I thought he was pretty good,” Henderson said. “I’ve got to give them (Illinois) some credit. They had the best approach against him of anybody all year, especially in the first inning. He’s going to throw strikes. They know him, they’ve seen him before. They were aggressive and they knew he was going to give them stuff to hit because he just doesn’t throw many balls. His changeup was really good, and the thing about Baird, too, is that, for the most part, if he gives up a hit here or there, he’s going to execute pitches with guys in scoring position. He did a really good job with that and got a couple of double plays and executed pitches when he really had to.”
It’s been said many a time that one game does not a season or even a weekend make, but the SIU team that took the field against Illinois looked completely different than the one that slumped off the field after taking a 10-2 loss to Toledo, and it’s easy to see how this win could serve as something of a spark for a team that certainly looked to be in need of one at about 2:00 PM on Saturday afternoon.
“That’s one of the great things about baseball- you don’t have to wait a week to do it all again,” Henderson said. “We knew we had Baird going and we always have a chance to win with that guy on the bump. We played a lot better. We played with more energy, we played with more effort, we got better ABs, we had some guys starting to try to make some adjustments, so it was a good game for us.
“This second game here was a big game for us because I felt like we took a stride forward. When you’re not playing like you’re capable of or you don’t feel like you are, you’ve got do go out every day and say we’ve got to work toward it, we’ve got to take steps forward and try to get where we want to be and I thought we did that.”