"This isn't exactly the way we wanted to win it, but we won a lot of games early to put ourselves in this position," senior shortstop Toby Gardenhire said. "Even after this weekend, we've won more games than any other team in the Big Ten, so we're Big Ten champs and it feels great."
Illinois finishes the conference season 20-12, one game better than Purdue (17-11) and Iowa (19-13), and nabs the top seed for next week's Big Ten Tournament to be held at Illinois Field. The Illini will play at 7:05 on Thursday, May 26 against the lowest seed that advances from Wednesday's games featuring No. 4 seed Michigan vs. No. 5 Ohio State or No. 3 Iowa vs. No. 6 Minnesota. Although the bracket layout has Illinois (33-21-1 overall) playing the winner of the Michigan-Ohio State contest, the Illini could face Minnesota Thursday if the Gophers upset Iowa on Wednesday.
Tension mounted against the Hawkeyes as Illinois' offense once again struggled to score runs. The Illini didn't advance a runner to second base until the third inning, and fell into a 5-0 hole through the top of the fifth. Illinois put up a run in the bottom of the fifth as Toby Gardenhire (Little Canada, Minn.) scored from first when the Iowa rightfielder mishandled Ryan Rogowski's (Livonia, Mich.) double toward the gap, cutting the Iowa lead to 5-1.
The Illini threatened in the seventh, loading the bases as Gardenhire doubled off the wall in right-center and J.R. Kyes (Springfield, Ill.) and Chris Robinson (Dorchester, Ontario) walked with two outs. But Illinois couldn't push a run across as the inning ended with a strikeout. The Illini once again loaded the bases in the eighth, this time with no outs, but pinch hitter Chad Frk (Northfield, Ohio) hit a liner back to the pitcher that turned into a double play as Shawn Roof (Paducah, Ky.) got doubled off first. Gardenhire then grounded out to end the scoring threat and leave the Hawkeyes' lead at 7-1 after Iowa had scored a run in both the sixth and eighth. "They had great pitching," Illinois coach Itch Jones said. "And we didn't make many adjustments to their pitchers. We hit the ball hard a lot, just right at them. But that's baseball."
Illinois had numerous line drives, but nearly all of them were hit directly at fielders. To their credit, the Hawkeyes made a handful of flashy plays in the field, including a diving stab by the third baseman to end the game. "It seemed like we couldn't get a break," Rogowski said. "We'd hit a line drive but it was right at somebody. That's just how the weekend went."
Despite dropping three of four to Iowa, the Illini will host the Big Ten Tournament at Illinois Field, beginning Wednesday, May 25. Michigan and Ohio State play at 12:05 p.m., and Iowa faces Minnesota at 3:35 p.m. in day one action.
Rogowski and Robinson each went 2-for-4 with a double Sunday, and Rogowski finished the series 7-for-15 (.467) with a homer, a double, three runs and two stolen bases. Aaron Saving (Metamora, Ill.) struggled through his first career start Sunday, allowing five runs on seven hits in 4 2/3 innings to take the loss.
Sunday's attendance of 1,407 pushed the weekend figure to 4,460, the third highest weekend series attendance in the18-year history of Illinois Field.