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No. 8 Seed Penn State Baseball Stuns No. 1 Seed Illinois In 8-4 Upset

Penn State baseball (27-23, 13-12 Big Ten) defeated Illinois (33-18, 18-7 Big Ten) 8-4 in its opening game of Big Ten Tournament play.

Travis Luensmann tossed five quality innings and Adam Cecere smacked a long home run in the sixth inning. JT Marr and Bobby Marsh also drove in a pair of runners. Anthony Steele closed things out in the ninth inning as Penn State secured its first postseason win under Mike Gambino.

How It Happened

Jack Crowder, the Friday starter for the Fighting Illini, got the start on the mound and Penn State immediately jumped on the right-hander. Joe Jaconski worked a leadoff four-pitch walk and was followed up by a Marr single to left field, giving the Nittany Lions runners on the corners for the heart of the order.

After Cecere was sat down via strikeout, Marsh worked a walk after going down in the count 0-2 to load the bases for Grant Norris. The infielder lifted a sacrifice fly to deep right field that scored Jaconski and moved Marr to third base, giving Penn State the opening run of the ballgame. Now with two outs, Crowder ended the Penn State scoring threat by striking out Bryce Molinaro.

Luensmann got the start on the mound and worked around a two-out single to pitch a scoreless first inning, striking out two batters. The Penn State bats made some more noise in its half of the second inning, as Kevin Michaels reached on a fielder’s choice and Jaconski laced a double off of the fence in right field, giving Penn State runners on second and third with two outs. With Crowder facing Marr and needing to avoid further early trouble, the right-hander forced Marr to swing through a fastball to hold Penn State scoreless.

Luensmann continued to cruise in his second inning of work as he worked around a two-out single after striking out the first two batters of the inning. Cecere made an outstanding catch in right field to end the inning, crashing into the fence to make the grab. Penn State once again put Crowder in trouble as Marsh and Norris ripped consecutive singles, but the Nittany Lions were again unable to secure the big hit as Molinaro grounded into a double play to end the inning.

Illinois again had a two-out baserunner against Luensmann as Camden Janik reached on an infield single, but the Penn State starter battled back to strikeout the next batter to toss another scoreless inning. In the top of the fourth, Penn State once again had two runners on after Tayven Kelley lined a single into center and Michaels reached after being plunked by a pitch.

Jaconski struck out to give Crowder the second out of the inning, but a double-steal gave Penn State runners on second and third for Marr, who grounded a single into right field that scored both runners to give the Nittany Lions a 3-0 lead. After Marr advanced to second on an error, Crowder forced Cecere to line out to center and escaped the inning.

Luensmann continued to deal in his fourth inning of work, as a two-out walk was the only blemish in another scoreless inning. As Crowder searched for his first one-two-three inning, Molinaro spoiled things as he smacked a ground-rule double over the fence in right-center field. After he surrendered the double, Crowder plunked Maloney to give Penn State two baserunners with Kelley at the plate. Kelley smacked a hard grounder to third base that was bobbled by Coltin Quagliano, but the fielder recovered to throw out Kelley and end the inning.

For the first time all game, Illinois secured a leadoff baserunner as Quagliano reached on a single. Luensmann plunked the next batter, giving the Fighting Illini two runners on for the top of their order. With a full count to Cal Hejza, Luensmann was called for a balk on a pickoff attempt that advanced the runners into scoring position. Hejza struck out and Janik hit a deep sacrifice fly to center field that gave Illinois its first run of the ballgame. Still with two outs, Drake Westcott worked a four-pitch walk to put runners on the corners for Vytas Valincius, who flew out to center field to end the inning.

Illinois opened the sixth inning by calling on Julius Sanchez from the bullpen in relief of Crowder and the Nittany Lions jumped on the new pitcher, as Jaconski smacked a single and Cecere destroyed a belt-high fastball over the right field fence to extend the Penn State lead to 5-1. Sanchez got out of the inning on the next pitch as he forced Marsh to ground out.

Like Illinois, Penn State called on its bullpen in the sixth inning as Mason Horwat relieved Luensmann. After he surrendered a leadoff base hit, Horwat forced Harding to hit a ground ball to Jaconski that the first baseman could not handle, allowing Moreman to score, which cut the Penn State lead to three. Horwat escaped trouble against the next batter he faced, as Connor Milton grounded into a double play to end the inning.

Sanchez worked around a two-out base hit from Maloney to hold Penn State scoreless in the top of the seventh inning. Hejza led off the Illinois half of the inning as he reached via a hit-by-pitch, but was sent back to the dugout thanks to an outstanding defensive play by Norris to record the fielder’s choice. With Janik on first base with one out, Westcott lined a single into right field to give the Fighting Illini runners on the corners.

A fielder’s choice scored Janik to further trim the Illinois deficit, this time to 5-3. With two outs, Molinaro flashed the leather at third base to make a sliding stop and throw to first to record the final out of the seventh inning.

With just six outs remaining to extend its deficit and a new pitcher in the ballgame, Michaels led off the Penn State half of the eighth inning with a booming double into the left field gap. Jaconski worked a walk to set up Marr with runners on first and second, Marr secured his third hit of the game to load the bases for Cecere. The star outfielder turned in another productive at-bat, as he delivered a sacrifice fly that scored the pinch runner Derek Cease and moved the other runners into scoring position.

Behind 6-3, Illinois made another pitching change and called on Ben Plumley to limit the damage. Marsh greeted the new pitcher with a two-run double down the right-field line to extend the Nittany Lions lead to five. Kyle Hannon entered the game to pinch run for Marsh and moved over the third base on a wild pitch but went no further, as Molinaro grounded out to the shortstop to end the inning.

Quagliano got a run back for Illinois in the bottom half of the eighth as he laced a double into the right-field gap. With Illinois within four, Horwat secured the remaining two outs of the inning to send Penn State back to the plate for more insurance. Korey Bunselmeyer entered the game for Illinois and Maloney greeted the right-hander with a line-drive single to left field.

Penn State called on its closer Steele to record the final three outs of the ballgame and he forced Janik to line out to center field for the first out of the inning. Westcott worked a walk after falling behind in the count 0-2 but advanced no further as Steele retired the following batters to secure the win for Penn State.

Takeaways

  • Penn State needed an outstanding performance from its ace if they wanted to have a chance in this game, and Luensmann did just that. The right-hander shut down the impressive Illinois offense across five strong innings, where he struck out seven batters and allowed just one run.
  • Much like Penn State needed a great performance from its ace, it also needed outstanding games from its stars on offense. Marr and Cecere both delivered strong performances as Marr secured three hits and two RBIs, while Cecere launched a 419-foot home run in the sixth inning and delivered a sacrifice fly in the eighth.
  • By securing a spot in the tournament in the first place, the Nittany Lions are playing with house money and their aggressiveness on the base paths showed it. The coaches were willing to make tough sends and it paid off all game, as Illinois was unable to throw a Nittany Lion out on the bases.
  • Illinois came into the game with one of the best offenses in the conference and the Penn State pitching staff kept it in check. If Penn State wanted to pull off the upset, it needed to hold the Illinois offense in check, and it did just that by allowing only four runs.

What’s Next?

The Nittany Lions will take on the winner of the Michigan/Iowa game at 6 p.m. on Thursday, May 23. The game will be broadcast live on Big Ten Network.

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About the Author

Dennis Wilkins

Dennis is a third-year journalism major from Brick, New Jersey. He has a love-hate relationship with every team he roots for, especially the New York Giants. When he's not watching Jack Hughes highlights, he can be found playing golf or listening to music. Direct all complaints to him via email ([email protected]) or on Twitter (@denniswilkins27).

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