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Illini offense struggles in loss to Kentucky

Jun. 1—LEXINGTON, Ky. — The Illinois baseball team rode a prolific offense to a Big Ten regular-season title.

But all those extra-base hits, those home runs and well, those runs? They haven't turned up in the most important games of the season.

A season that is now in a win-or-go-home scenario after No. 2 Kentucky earned a 6-1 NCAA tournament win against the Illini on Saturday evening in front of 6,066 fans at Kentucky Proud Park.

The Illini (35-20) never led against the host Wildcats (42-14) on Saturday in a game that was moved up from its initial 5 p.m. start because of rain and will now have to beat Indiana State (43-14) for a second time this weekend if they want another chance against Kentucky.

Illinois and the Sycamores meet at 11 a.m. Sunday in an elimination game, with the winner moving on to play Kentucky at 5 p.m. Sunday in the regional title game. But Illinois will have to win three straight games now — if the Illini beat Indiana State and then defeat Kentucky on Sunday night, a rematch between the Illini and Wildcats would take place at a time to be determined on Monday in the double-elimination format — if it wants to keep its season going past the opening days of June.

And in order for the Illini to have a chance to do so, their offense must start producing like it did during Big Ten play.

Illinois has hit a single-season record 103 home runs this season, but none in their last five games: three at the Big Ten tournament and two so far in the NCAA tournament. Illinois had 20 games of double-digit run totals during the regular season, but has only combined for 15 runs in the Big Ten tournament and NCAA tournament.

"We've got to score some runs," Illinois coach Dan Hartleb said. "We haven't done that in the past, probably two weeks. In order for us to come back through this bracket, we're going to have to score runs."

Illinois fell behind 2-0 in the top of the second inning when Kentucky first baseman Ryan Nicholson hit a two-run home run off Illinois starter Payton Hutchings. Hutchings, a left-hander, lasted five innings. He gave up three runs on four hits and struck out two, but also walked two and hit three batters.

"I thought Payton did a really good job. He's not a guy that has great velocity. He's a guy that really has to pitch," Hartleb said. "He had the one inning where he gave up the two runs where he hit some guys, but the reason that we stick him out there on a regular basis is because you know what you're going to get from a competitive standpoint, and he put that behind us and got us deep in the game."

Kentucky continued to add to its lead throughout, with leadoff hitter and left fielder Ryan Waldschmidt hitting a two-run home run off Illinois reliever Jake Rons in the top of the ninth to punctuate the scoring and give Kentucky a 6-1 lead. Waldschmidt finished 3 for 5 with three RBI and added a double to spark the Wildcats, who took advantage of five walks by Illinois pitchers.

"We got out of some jams, but we gave them too many baserunners either with walks or hit by pitches," Hartleb said. "A couple of those hurt us."

Illinois pushed across its lone run in the bottom of the fourth. With two outs, catcher Jacob Schroeder singled, advanced to second on a wild pitch and came around to score when Illini second baseman Brody Harding pulled a single into right field to trim the Illini's deficit to 2-1.

But Illinois only managed two hits the rest of the way. Kentucky starter Trey Pooser went seven innings, striking out seven and walking two while giving up five hits.

"He was just commanding all three of his pitches and throwing them all for a strike, getting ahead, and putting them in good spots a lot," Schroeder said. "Wasn't a lot of really good pitches to hit all day, so I think he did a good job of doing that."

Reliever Ryan Hagenow threw the final two innings, striking out three.

"We definitely had opportunities, and we couldn't get the big hit," Hartleb said. "I didn't think we had really quality, composed at-bats in those situations. Those things hurt you when you're playing a team as good as Kentucky, and you have to cash in when you get those opportunities."