Duffy Bass field (Photo courtesy of GoRedbirds.com)
By WJBC staff
CARBONDALE, Ill. – Jeremy Rhoades’ 3-2, two-out breaking pitch fooled Southern Illinois (24-31, 6-5 MVC) outfielder Nick Johnson for strike three, securing a thrilling 9-8, 10-inning victory for Illinois State (36-18, 16-5 MVC) Saturday at Abe Martin Field to set off a wild celebration as Illinois State won its first outright Missouri Valley Conference championship in program history. The Missouri Valley Conference title is the second for Illinois State in four years under head coach Mark Kingston. The Redbirds won a share of its first MVC title in 2010, Kingston’s first season as head coach.
With the victory, the Redbirds own the top seed in the Missouri Valley Conference Championship, which runs May 21-25, at Duffy Bass Field. The winner of the MVC Championship receives an automatic bid to a NCAA Regional.
The Redbirds rallied for three runs over the final two innings of the game to come from behind to defeat the Salukis. A two-run rally in the ninth inning forced extra innings, before freshman Jack Czeszewski’s RBI-single to center field gave the Redbirds the lead for good in the tenth inning.
Rhoades (2-1) fired a season-best 4.1 perfect innings, collecting three strike outs for the win. SIU closer Todd Eaton (1-2) earned a blown save in the ninth inning and suffered the loss in the tenth.
Trailing 8-6 going into the ninth inning, redshirt freshman second baseman Paul DeJong coaxed a leadoff work versus Eaton. Joe Kelch pinch hit for Sean Beesley, and knocked a single into left field, setting up a Brett Kay walk to load the bases. Chad Hinshaw’s sacrifice fly to right field scored DeJong and advanced Kay to third base. Zac Johnson followed with a RBI-single to center field, knotting the game at 8-8 and extending the game to the bottom of the ninth inning.
After Rhoades worked a 1-2-3 ninth inning, Mike Hollenbeck drew a one out walk to open the tenth inning and advanced to second base on a single from Brock Stewart. Two batters, and one out later, Czeszewski stepped to the plate for his first plate appearance since May 1 versus Webster. The true freshman outfielder lined a 2-1 pitch to center field for a base hit, scoring Hollenbeck and giving the Redbirds the lead for good. It was Czeszewski’s first base hit since March 12 at Miami.
In the bottom of the tenth inning Rhoades retired all three batters he faced, fanning Johnson to secure the win.
The three-hour, 19-minute marathon featured a back-and-forth battle between the two MVC rivals. Tied 2-2 going into the bottom of the third, the Salukis rallied for three runs, chasing Redbird starter Brad Sorkin from the game and giving SIU a 5-2 lead after three innings. DeJong’s bases-clearing three-run double in the fourth inning tied the game at 5-5 before Kay’s sacrifice-fly gave the Redbirds a 6-5 advantage. SIU added three runs in the sixth inning to lead 8-6, a score that remained unchanged until the ninth inning.
Saturday’s win capped Illinois State’s 54-game regular season, which opened Feb. 15 with a 5-2 win at Memphis. With 36 wins, the Redbirds have tied the program record for most wins win a regular season, set by Kingston’s 2011 Redbird team.
Illinois State will open the Missouri Valley Conference Championship, Tuesday May 21 versus eight-seed Bradley. First pitch is slated for 7:37 p.m. from Duffy Bass Field.