Illinois Shocks #1 LSU In Baton Rouge
(With the end of the year fast approaching, we’re counting down some of the top moments from the 2009 college baseball season (in no particular order). We’ll have one a day through New Year’s Eve.)
LSU was riding high heading into the third weekend of the 2009 season. The Tigers were ranked #1 in multiple national polls, they were 9-0 with eight of those wins in the new Alex Box Stadium and they had won 25 straight regular season
games dating back to the end of the 2008 season. Not only was Paul Mainieri’s squad winning games, they were bludgeoning opponents by a combined 109-25 score in their first nine games of the season.
Enter Illinois. The Illini was a respectable 5-1, but this was a Big 10 team…in Baton Rouge no less. Illinois was 6-13-2 all-time vs. LSU with all 21 games on the bayou. No problem…right? Think again.
In the 129 previous season of Illinois baseball it would be hard to find a better three days than head coach Dan Hartleb’s squad was about to have, and a new freshman phenom was about to emerge. Here’s how it happened:
Friday, March 6: LSU and Illinois were tied 1-1 in the ninth inning when Illini catcher Aaron Johnson stepped to the plate with one on and two out. Illinois had done next two nothing all night vs. LSU starter Anthony Ranaudo, who struckout 12 before exiting after seven innings. Johnson, Illinois’ #5 batter, was responsible for 3 of those Ks. The junior from Sussex Corner, Neb made up for it though by launching a first pitch slider from Louis Coleman off the massive video scoreboard above the wall in left field to put Illinois on top 3-1. The Alex Box crowd of 7,640 was stunned and later silenced when Illinois pitcher Nick Chmielewski struckout the side in the bottom of the 9th to end the game.
The win came almost 14 years to the day after Illinois’ last win over a #1 ranked team (March 5, 1995-a 7-4 win over Miami). Illini sophomore starter Phil Haig held an LSU team that was averaging 12 runs a game to just a run on eight hits through seven innings. He induced 12 groundouts. Freshman reliever Corey Kimes earned the win by fanning the side in the 8th inning. That’s right…Kimes and Chmielewski combined to strikeout the last six LSU batters of the night.
Saturday, March 7: If the Tigers were licking their wounds after Friday night’s stunner, they didn’t show it. LSU exploded for a 22-10 game two win. The game featured 10 home runs, 3 grand slams (all by LSU), 32 runs, 32 hits, and 11 pitchers. None of the pitchers for either side lasted more than three innings. Illinois’ hurlers combined to walk 11 LSU batters. The 3 grand slams by LSU tied an NCAA record for the most in a single game and set a new SEC mark.
However, the story of the game wasn’t what the vaunted Tigers did in victory, it was was an Illinois freshman did in defeat. Outfielder Willie Argo had sat on the bench through the first seven games of his career, but he made the most of his first collegiate opportunity. Making his first college start in rightfield (at LSU no less) Argo went 3-for-3 with 3 home runs in his first three official at-bats (he drew a walk his third time up).
The Davenport, Iowa native hit the leftfield foul pole with the second pitch of his first career at-bat for his first home run, and then launched two shots over the left field wall in his next two official trips to the plate. After the game Argo said “I couldn’t believe it after the first one, and then I just laughed after the second and felt like it was just one of those days after the third. They made some mistakes by giving me fastballs in the middle of the plate, and I took advantage of it.”
(Press play to listen to Argo talk about his big day & Illinois’ big weekend in his podcast interview with Collegebaseball360.com Editor Sean Stires.)
Sunday, March 8: Stellar pitching and shaky defense by LSU capped Illinois’ remarkable weekend with a 6-2 Illini win. Senior Ben Reeser had the start of a lifetime with 9 Ks in 8 2/3 innings to give his team the series win. Illinois
scored its first two runs thanks to a pair of LSU errors in the 3rd (somewhat ironic since LSU’s stellar defense later in Omaha was such a big part of its national championship run). Designated hitter Casey McMurray had a pair of RBIs for Illinois, while three of his teammates had an RBI apiece. Illinois took a 6-0 lead into the bottome of the 9th before LSU finally scored. Chmielewski came in with one on and two outs to strikeout Nick Pontiff to end the game. A day after his 3 home run coming out party Willie Argo was 0-for-4 with 3 Ks in the loss.
Notes On The Illinois’ Stunning Series Win:
- Aaron Johnson earned Big 10 Player of the Week honors for his efforts. He batted .500 in the series with 2 HRs and 5 RBIs.
- Ben Reeser was named Big 10 Pitcher of the Week.
- It was the first time since 1991 that Illinois took both Player and Pitcher of the Week honors in the same week.
- Illinois entered the national rankings the following week at #21 in the Collegiate Baseball poll.
- Willie Argo started the rest of Illinois’ 45 games in 2009. He ended his freshman season with a .355 average, a team-high 12 HR, 47 RBIs, and a .651 slg %.
- Orange was not a kind color to LSU in 2009. The only other series the Tigers lost all year, home or away, was when they dropped 2 of 3 at home to Tennessee in April.
- LSU outscored Illinois 25-19 in the 3 games, but lost the series.
- The Tigers hit .421 (16-for-38) in their 22-10 win, but they hit a combined .227 (15-for-66) in their two losses.
- Illinois is the first team to win a game and a series in Alex Box Stadium history.
- LSU, of course, would go on to win the 2009 national championship, while Illinois would go 34-20, but miss the NCAA Tournament.
Other Top Moments Of 2009