Coming into this weekend’s series, the IU baseball team was in the midst of a five-game losing streak, the longest in the Jeff Mercer era. The team’s hitting and fielding had fallen off against Ohio State, which swept IU, as the Hoosiers had seven runs and eight errors in four games.
IU responded by picking up two convincing wins against Illinois, which came into the weekend as the top hitting team in the conference.
On Friday, the Hoosiers relied on the long ball, with all of their runs coming on home runs. Freshman first baseman Kip Fougerousse opened the scoring with a solo shot that snuck inside the left foul pole to take the lead in the bottom of the third.
After an otherwise solid outing, IU’s starting pitcher junior Tommy Sommer gave up five hits and three runs in the top of the fifth inning. After a single and two strikeouts, Illinois’ first baseman Justin Janas hit a line drive to right center field. IU sophomore center fielder Grant Richardson dove for the catch and missed, allowing Janas to ignite the rally with a game-tying RBI triple. After three more hits, Illinois took the lead 3-1 before Sommer finally got a groundout to end the top of the fifth.
In the bottom of the fifth, IU tied the game at three with a two-out, two-run homer from junior leadoff hitter Drew Ashley. It was Ashley’s third home run of the year. After having two solo shots in the series against Ohio State, junior third baseman Cole Barr added another in the bottom of the sixth, giving IU a slim 4-3 lead.
After two strong innings of relief from freshman John Mudugno, IU opened the top of the eighth with senior Braden Scott on the mound. Scott would only last five pitches, as he gave up the game-tying home run to Jackson Raper, his fourth hit of the night. Before freshman pitcher Nathan Stahl had the opportunity to come in, storm systems moved in and put the suddenly tied game in a weather delay, right as Illinois had snatched the momentum away.
“We were a whisper away from just cancelling tonight,” Mercer said. “With the rain coming in [on Saturday], we decided to wait it out.”
After a nearly two-hour delay, the teams came back onto the field where they left off, with a fully warmed-up Stahl taking the mound for the Hoosiers. The eighth ended without either team getting a baserunner.
In the top of the ninth, Stahl got two quick groundouts, needing one more to give IU the opportunity to walk it off. After giving up three straight singles, Stahl had the bases loaded with Raper, Illinois’ hottest batter, coming up with the opportunity to take the lead. Raper swung on both pitches, with the second being a deep flyout to center field, negating the scoring threat and giving IU a chance to win the game.
“Nate was absolutely terrific,” Mercer said. “Him sitting down for that long and being able to get right back in was incredible. I just really trust in him in that situation, and his stuff was electric.”
With two outs and a man on first, redshirt senior catcher Collin Hopkins came up to the plate. Hopkins, who was recruited to IU for his defensive prowess, was batting in the nine spot, with a .067 batting average. Despite this, Hopkins worked his way into a favorable 2-1 count and smashed a ball over the outstretched glove of Illinois center fielder Taylor Jackson, walking off the game for IU, its second walk-off home run of the season.
“I was definitely taking until I got a strike,” Hopkins said. “We had a really good week of practice. The game tonight was a product of that.”
On Saturday, IU’s pitching dominated Illinois’ hot bats. Sophomore starter McCade Brown returned to his dominant form after getting out-pitched by Ohio State’s Seth Lonsway last weekend. Brown struggled with his command early, giving up seven walks in five innings. However, with nine strikeouts and no hits or runs given up, he gave IU an opportunity to take the lead.
In the bottom of the fourth, Barr drew a two-out, four-pitch walk. After a double from freshman second baseman Pual Toetz, Fougerousse, who opened the scoring on Friday, cleared the bases with a two-RBI single. Freshman outfielder Morgan Colopy doubled the lead with a two-run homer, giving Brown and the relievers some cushion.
After a 1-2-3 fifth inning, Brown left the game with the no-hitter intact. Sophomore Braydon Tucker entered the game in the top of the sixth and would finish the final four innings, doubling his longest outing of the season.
“It felt good to be back out there,” Tucker said. “It felt amazing just to get back there. I’ve had my confidence, but tonight was a really good booster.”
In the bottom of the sixth and seventh, IU added two runs each to increase the lead to 8-0, giving IU the go-ahead to pursue history. Tucker got through the eighth without a hitch, and IU was three outs away from its first no-hitter since 1984.
“I really had no clue that we had a no-hitter going,” Tucker said. “I was just trying to get ahead in counts, making sure guys were just beating themselves, just doing my job.”
In the bottom of the ninth, Tucker faced Illinois right fielder Cam McDonald first. McDonald hit a chopper down the line to Barr, whose throw was short by a couple of feet. As Fougerousse stretched as far as he could to pick the ball out of the dirt, he dropped it. However, it was scored as a throwing error since the ball hit Fougerousse’s glove before McDonald reached the base.
With a runner on first, Illinois first baseman Kellen Sarver hit the ball straight to freshman shortstop Tank Espalin, who flipped to Toetz to get the fielder's choice at second. In the final play of the night, it was Espalin who completed the no-hitter, fielding a sharply hit ground ball by Illinois’ Jacob Campbell, stepping on second to get Sarver out and slinging the ball to first to get Campbell out at first.
“The defense was outstanding. They’re great players,” Brown said. “Gives a lot of confidence to the pitchers when you’ve got a good defense behind you.”
IU’s combined no-hitter was its first since 1984. The series finale on Sunday was postponed, and IU and Illinois have not scheduled a makeup date.