Illini defense just as impressive as high-powered offense in series-opening win

May 11—CHAMPAIGN — Jack Crowder has received no shortage of run support in his role as Illinois' opening night starter in Big Ten play since conference action began in late March. Nearly nine runs per game in six conference starts ahead of Friday night's effort against Iowa.

Which was no different with Crowder on the mound and arguably the Big Ten's most potent offense in support.

Back-to-back solo home runs from Brody Harding and Coltin Quagliano in the third inning were Illinois' 89th and 90th of the season. A third from Drake Westcott in the bottom of the sixth tied the Illini's single-season record. And Illinois put 10 runs on the board before Crowder was replaced in the top of the seventh inning ahead of an important 10-5 victory that kept the Illini (29-16, 14-5 Big Ten) atop the conference standings.

But it wasn't just the run support that helped Crowder secure his fifth win this spring. The defense behind him was as solid Friday as it has been all season.

"If the offense goes, pitching goes and defense goes," Crowder said. "The hitters, when they're hitting well the play defense well. They get in a rhythm."

Vytas Valincius made the first highlight reel-worthy play when tracked down a flyball deep in foul territory for the first out of the second inning. The Illinois left fielder might have overextended himself in his pursuit — losing purchase between his cleats and the Illinois Field turf — but he still made the catch despite being in a full layout position.

"When balls are hit like that you're like, 'Oh no, that's a tough play,'" Crowder said. "Then he makes the catch and you're like, 'Let's go.' It's a great feeling knowing they're diving and putting their bodies on the line for outs."

That led directly to another web gem-caliber defensive play by Harding. The Illinois second baseman ranged well past the second base bag to corral a sharp ground ball from Iowa's Gable Mitchell before rifling the ball to a stretched out Westcott at first base. Westcott made three other impressive plays at first, with a scoop in the fifth, a full out stretch in the sixth and another scoop in the ninth after Cal Hejza made a play deep in the hole at shortstop.

"Drake's great over there," Harding said. "We know if we throw it in the dirt or anywhere around the bag he's going to go get it for us. He played some great picks on some tough throws, but that's what he always does.

"I knew coming in this year we'd have a good infield. All four guys playing in the infield have been here a couple years. We work incredibly hard in individuals in the winter with (assistant coach Adam Christ), and he did a great job of preparing us to get ready."

Illinois finished Friday night's win against Iowa (28-19, 13-9) with a clean defensive performance. Zero errors. Fairly typical.

All three of the Illini's starting outfielders — Valincius, Connor Milton and Ryan Moerman — have yet to commit an error this season. Starting catcher Camden Janik has just a single miscue behind the plate. Westcott and Harding have just two apiece in 99 combined games.

All told its enough for a team fielding percentage that stayed at .980 after Friday's series-opening win against the Hawkeyes. Not far off Illinois' Big Ten record .982 fielding percentage from the 2019 season.

"Guys just playing to win," Illinois coach Dan Hartleb said about his team's defensive effort. "I thought we'd be solid because we're strong up the middle. When you're strong up the middle, you have a chance. These guys have really done a good job and played with a lot of confidence."