OMAHA – With the game tied, 2-2, in the top of the eighth inning, the Michigan State baseball team exploded for five runs and then tacked on four more in the ninth to defeat Illinois, 11-2, on Friday afternoon and remain alive in the Big Ten Tournament. Joel Fisher went 3-for-5 with four RBIs and reliever Jeff Kinley had a career-long outing, holding the Illini to just two hits over the final 6 1/3 innings to earn the victory.
“I thought toward the middle of the game we were a little flat. Our guys could have packed it in, but they didn’t and they kept fighting,” said MSU head coach Jake Boss Jr. “We put some pressure on them in the seventh and then broke it open with a couple of big hits in the eighth.”
The sixth-seeded Spartans (31-15) will now take on the No. 1 seed Indiana Hoosiers on Saturday at 2 p.m. ET at TD Ameritrade Park.
The Spartans had a total of just three hits entering the top of the seventh inning, trailing 2-1. Three singles in the seventh, including an RBI base hit by Johnny Nate that flared just over the head of the second baseman, tied the game gave the Green and White momentum.
Cam Gibson, who went 4-for-6 in the game, led off the eighth with a single and Anthony Cheky followed by reaching on an error. Blaise Salter then untied the game for good, pounding a double into deep center field over the head of Will Krug. Gibson slid home safely on the play, scoring the first of five runs in the inning.
An intentional walk to Jimmy Pickens loaded the bases for Fisher who belted a double off the wall in right field, plating all three runners.
Ryan Richardson’s infield single brought in one more run and the Spartans took a 7-2 lead to the ninth.
Fisher added another RBI double in the ninth and Richardson and Nate registered consecutive RBI groundouts. Gibson’s fourth hit of the game was a two-out RBI single to right field that capped the Spartans’ nine-run outburst over the final two innings.
While the Spartan offense came to life late in the game, it was Kinley’s work on the mound that kept the Spartans within reach. He replaced starter Jake Lowery with two outs in the third and after allowing singles to the first two hitters he faced, Kinley sat down nine straight. An error in the bottom of the seventh briefly halted Kinley’s streak, but the junior responded by retiring nine of the final 11 batters to end the game.
“It was nice to be able to stay out there and give our guys a chance to win,” Kinley said.
Illini reliever Ronnie Muck took over for John Kravetz and got the final out of the seventh before allowing five runs off five hits in the game-altering eighth inning.
Leading 1-0 in the third, Illinois (32-21) added another run when Krug reached on an error and later scored on an RBI single by Jason Goldstein.
Following the RBI single, Goldstein stole second and the first batter Kinley faced, Reid Roper, belted a single to second base. Nate got to the ball deep in the hole toward first base and with Goldstein trying to score on the play, Nate made a perfect throw to Fisher at the plate. Fisher got the ball in plenty of time and tagged out Goldstein to end the third inning and keep it a two-run game.
“Plays like that helped us prevent them from having big innings today,” Fisher said. “That’s how we had to play the whole game – stick with it and grind it out.”
Richardson almost singlehandedly pulled the Spartans within a run in the top of the fifth. Following a one-out double to left field, he stole third and when the throw from catcher Goldstein on the play sailed high, Richardson came home to make it 2-1.
Kinley improved to 2-2 with the win, finishing with two strikeouts and one walk. His previous high in innings pitched was 4 2/3 innings in March 2012.
Should the Spartans defeat Indiana tomorrow afternoon, they would have to face the Hoosiers again later in the day as IU is currently undefeated in the double-elimination tournament. Two wins by the Spartans would put them in Sunday’s championship game, while a loss would end their tournament run.