The University of Oregon Ducks and the Illinois State Red Birds squared off on Saturday afternoon in game three of their four-game series. The feisty ISU squad dropped the first two games despite solid efforts and hanging around the 12th ranked Ducks for the entirety of both games.
The storyline coming into the game for the Ducks was whether or not pitcher Matt Krook could continue to build on his comeback season after sitting out all of 2015 recovering from Tommy John surgery. Krook’s first start was a brief one last weekend in San Diego with mixed results; he lasted only four innings, striking out six, walking three and watching four runs cross the plate—only two of them earned. Krook has high expectations from the Ducks as well as all of college baseball as he was one of 50 players named to the preseason Golden Spikes Award watch list.
The Ducks struck first, donning their retro candy apple uniforms on today’s crisp afternoon, with Austin Grebeck leading off the bottom of the first with a single and then meandering his way to home through a combination of sacrifice hits and passed balls. ISU answered right back in the top of the second after the Ducks couldn’t turn a double play on Red Birds third basemen Brian Rodemoyer, who was doubled home two batters later by center fielder Sean Beesley leaving the score at 1-1 heading into the bottom of the second.
Krook began to struggle with command in the fourth inning giving up a single and two walks to load the bases with one out. Sean Beesley came up to bat after doubling home a run in his first at-bat and Krook was able to get a desperately needed double play to get out of the fourth without allowing any damage.
The Oregon bats were nowhere to be found against Illinois State senior starter Steve Heilenbach who settled in nicely after allowing his first inning run. Heilenbach threw three consecutive one-two-three innings and retired 11 batters in a row before an error allowed Ducks third basemen, Matt Kroon, to reach first in the bottom of the fifth.
Matt Krook stayed in the game for the Ducks in the sixth and recorded an error on an overthrow into right field with one out when ISU right fielder Jered Hendren nubbed an infield hit towards him. Hendren was able to make it to third on the overthrow. Krook looked angry when he got the ball back into his hands and promptly struck out the next two batters to erase his mistake. Krook’s afternoon ended after the seventh with a line of two hits, one earned run, five walks and a no decision.
Through seven innings, pitching ruled and each team was only able to muster two hits apiece.
In the bottom of the eighth, the Ducks were able to bunt Daniel Patzlaff over to second—who singled—to set up A.J. Balta with a runner in scoring position and two outs but Balta promptly grounded out to first one pitch into his at-bat.
Oregon ran into trouble in the top of the ninth when freshmen Kyle Robeniol walked two Red Bird batters to put a runner in scoring position with two outs. Cooper Stiles relieved Robeniol and walked Joe Kelch on a full count to load the bases. Jered Hendren then drove home two runs on a single for his second hit of the afternoon and making the score 3-1 and forcing the Ducks into desperation mode headed into the bottom of the ninth.
Illinois State’s Steve Heilenbach who had been on cruise control all afternoon after giving up one run in the first stayed in the game in the ninth to attempt the complete game. After recording a quick out, Ducks first basemen Phil Craig-St. Louis hit a ball to deep right field and into the parking lot for a solo homerun and got the Ducks back on the board after seven innings of zeros while also chasing Heilenbach from the game—Heilenbach was replaced by redshirt junior Jack Landwehr.
Landwehr quickly struck out DH Steven Packard but then walked catcher Tim Susnara who pinch hit for Slade Heggen. Kroon followed that up with an infield single when ISU’s Brian Rodemoyer couldn’t keep his foot on the bag to complete the out and put the Ducks in position to tie or win the game.
Landwehr recovered to strike out shortstop Travis Moniot and complete his two-out save for the Red Birds who took game three of this series with a score of 3-2.
Despite the loss, Matt Krook expressed his excitement after the game to be able to perform back in the friendly confines of PK Park, “It was awesome to be back here and pitching back here again… it has been almost two years since I’ve pitched here… it’s a lot of fun.” When asked if he was disappointed with the offense not being able to help him out Krook responded, “the bats will be back we’ve got really good hitters this year.
Head Coach George Horton praised Illinois State and their starter Steve Heilenbach after the game: “their pitcher did a heck of a job. Typically we like to break a guy down who is throwing that well and get his pitch count up but he was at 80 something pitches going into it [the ninth] because he was throwing strikes and getting ahead and we didn’t adjust.”
Oregon and Illinois State face off tomorrow at noon where the Red Birds will try to leave Eugene with a series split and the Ducks will likely send sophomore David Peterson to the mound to grab the series win.