CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Joey DeNato may have pitched the most effective 11-hitter of his career Friday night at Illinois Field.
Illinois hit the ball hard at times and was able to get base runners, but when DeNato needed to throw a perfect pitch or get a big out he was always up to the task.
The senior left-hander held Illinois scoreless in seven of his eight innings pitched and helped guide the Hoosiers to a 9-3 victory over the Illini in the first game of a key Big Ten Conference baseball series at Illinois Field.
Indiana came into the game with a full two-game lead over the second place Illini. By winning Friday, the Hoosiers have guaranteed that they will still be in first place when they leave Champaign sometime Sunday afternoon.
The win for the Hoosiers (27-11, 12-1 Big Ten) was their 15th in the last 16 games overall and their 10th consecutive win in Big Ten play. Even more impressive is that IU is now 7-0 this season in Big Ten road games.
The Hoosiers will face the Illini (22-16, 9-4) in the second game of the series Saturday at 4 p.m. ET as Christian Morris will take the hill for IU. Brian Korte will pitch for Indiana in the final game of the series Sunday at 2 p.m. ET.
Friday night, Indiana jumped out to a 6-0 lead in the first four innings getting five of those runs after two were out. The Hoosiers pounded out 13 hits with five different players getting at least two. Brad Hartong had three RBI to give him eight in his last two games, and Sam Travis hit a solo home run in the seventh inning, his sixth of the year.
But DeNato was on his game. The senior, who picked up his 33rd career victory which extends his school record in that department, improved to 9-1 on the year. He struck out five and walked one in eight innings of work.
"I thought he was control,'' said IU coach Tracy Smith of DeNato's performance. "That's the thing with him is to score off of him you're going to have to string a bunch of hits together. But when he needs to make a pitch he has a knack for being able to do that.
"When he has to change speeds and mix he can do that effectively. I actually thought he was pretty sharp because he was able to make the pitches when he needed to make them.''
A great example of DeNato's effectiveness came in the bottom of the third when the Illini were able to string three consecutive singles together to lead off the inning. The problem for Illinois was that after the first one, Casey Fletcher, got on base DeNato quickly proceeded to pick him off. DeNato would pick off two runners in the game, pushing his conference-leading total to nine for the season.
The next two batters singled but then DeNato settled down getting a strikeout and a fly out to end the inning with no runs scored.
"I felt like I was making good pitches today and throwing my pitches for strikes and locating them where I wanted them to be,'' DeNato said. "But those guys are just good hitters. They saw the ball well, and they took some pitches that maybe some other teams would swing at. I just felt like they had a good approach today and put the ball in play. That was one of our tougher opponents so far.''
DeNato was picked up by his defense on a couple of plays Friday. Dustin DeMuth made a great play on a bunt attempt by the first batter of the game to throw him out. Tim O'Conner made a huge over the shoulder catch in deep center field that helped silence a rally. Will Nolden made some nice catches in right field, too.
"I thought our guys in the outfield especially did a great job battling a pretty tough wind,'' DeNato said. "They made some plays that could have led to a bunch of runs. Instead we were able to keep them in check.''
IU manufactured a run in the top of the second when DeMuth reached first on a bunt single and moved to second on a hard single up the middle by Hartong. After both runners advanced on a sacrifice bunt by Nolden, Nick Ramos plated the first run with an RBI ground out to the right side of the infield.
The Hoosiers made it 4-0 in the third with the big hits being an RBI single by DeMuth and a two-RBI double by Hartong.
The two runs in the fourth came off back-to-back triples by Casey Rodrigue and Kyle Schwarber. Both were RBI hits and IU was up 6-0.
Luke Harrison came in and worked one inning of scoreless relief for the Hoosiers.
Follow Terry Hutchens at Twitter.com/Foxsportshutch