Free admission. Mini-bats for the kids. Fireworks. A battle for first-place in the Big Ten Conference baseball race. During a record-setting night at Illinois Field on Friday, Illinois sophomore left fielder Casey McMurray slapped an RBI single to cap a three-run rally in the ninth for a 5-4 victory over Ohio State.
Free admission. Mini-bats for the kids. Fireworks. A battle for first-place in the Big Ten Conference baseball race.
During a record-setting night at Illinois Field on Friday, Illinois sophomore left fielder Casey McMurray slapped an RBI single to cap a three-run rally in the ninth for a 5-4 victory over Ohio State.
The thrilling finish in front of a school single-game record crowd of 5,214 not only kept Illinois (32-14 overall, 15-4 in the Big Ten) in first place in the Big Ten -- one half-game ahead of Minnesota – it also left an impression.
"It was extremely important to play well,'' said Illinois coach Dan Hartleb. "Even if we lost that game, I thought we played well and put a good product on the field. Winning in that fashion is special. It shows things we can get done with a facility to bring in this type of crowd all the time. This is something to build on.''
The crowd shattered the school's single-game record of 4,229 against Iowa in 1995, easily surpassing the previous season high of 1,501. Remarkably, the attendance ranked second in school history for a series behind the 5,820 against Michigan in 1990. With another 2,000 or more expected Saturday, the record book is set to take another hit before Sunday's series finale.
The crowd began lining up at the gate two hours before the first pitch at 6:05 p.m. and quickly filled the 1,500 seats. Fans stood more than a half-dozen deep along the fences on each foul line. More stood on the hill behind the backstop.
"We knew we were going to have more people than seats,'' said Illini athletic director Ron Guenther. "But I think people are having a great time.''
Quarterback Juice Williams threw out the first pitch. Recently engaged to high school sweetheart Chez Chambers, Williams' fiancee and daughter stayed home. Nevertheless, it was a family crowd with kids chasing foul balls and parents standing in a long line for the concession stand. The Illini gave away 1,000 hot dogs, then sold about 2,000 more.
A handful of Illini basketball players sang 'Take Me Out to the Ballgame.''
Two errors by the Buckeyes helped load the bases in the ninth, and senior center fielder Joe Bonadonna tied the game with a two-run single before McMurray's game-winner. Ohio Sate (34-14, 13-6) remained in third place but fell two games behind the Illini.
"I've been here for five years,'' Bonadonna said. "This is the most fans I've seen. They provided a lot of momentum. They sparked our comeback. We wanted to win for the fans, put on a good show and see if we can fill the place tomorrow.''
John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com.