NORMAL — Illinois State’s first sweep of Missouri State since 2010 hung in the balance as Redbird baseball coach Steve Holm walked to the mound to discuss the situation with laboring reliever Jacob Gilmore on Saturday at Duffy Bass Field.
“Let it go,” was Holm’s advice to Gilmore. “I said win or lose I just want you to flat let the baseball go. That’s how you got here. That’s how you’re our closer, and I want you to go back to doing that.”
Gilmore secured the final two outs of ISU’s 5-3 victory on a sacrifice fly and a one-hopper back to the mound. Coupled with a 7-5 win in the doubleheader’s opener, the Redbirds vaulted into a tie for first place in the Missouri Valley Conference with Evansville at 5-1.
“Any sweep is really tough. Add the doubleheader on top of it, and it makes it even tougher,” said Holm after the Redbirds and Bears contested three games over a 27-hour period. “This game everyone was running on fumes. It’s good we still had the energy and fight to do it.”
Gilmore’s sixth save preserved the reward of a victory for starter Matt Walker (2-5). The junior left-hander was magnificent for seven innings, giving up just two hits, one run and striking out eight.
“Coming off two games knowing we can get the third and sweep them on our home field, I definitely carried the momentum,” Walker said. “Nothing drives you more than that. We want to show everybody we’ve actually improved a lot, and we’re the real deal this year.”
Walker, who started the day with a 6.27 ERA and 21 walks in 33 innings, issued a base on balls to the first hitter and none after that.
“Everything starts to work for me when I throw strikes,” said Walker.
ISU (21-14 overall) opened the scoring in the third when John Rave doubled and scored on Derek Parola’s single. After Missouri State (11-24, 4-5) tied it on a Joey Polak home run in the fourth, the Redbirds went back ahead when a bases-loaded walk to Rave forced home Gunner Peterson.
A first-pitch Joe Aeilts homer in the fifth extended ISU’s lead to 3-1. John Privitera’s eight-inning round-tripper off reliever Jack Anderson cut the Bears’ deficit to 3-2.
“A sweep is your goal every weekend, but it’s very hard to do,” Aeilts said. “The fact we were able to stay locked in for all three games and get three wins is big.”
Parola’s two-out, two-run triple chased home Jack Butler and Aidan Huggins in the eighth with two critical insurance runs.
ISU trailed 5-0 after five innings of the first game. The Redbirds got four of those back in the sixth.
Aeilts’ two-run homer scored Jordan Libman ahead of him. Tyson Hays doubled in Joe Butler and Peterson crossed the plate as Jack Butler grounded out.
Taking the lead with three seventh-inning runs, ISU received a bases-loaded walk to Peterson and a two-run Hays single off the glove of shortstop Mason Hull.
Redbird starter Jeff Lindgren allowed three earned runs over the first five frames. After a scoreless inning from Rhett Rapshus, Colton Johnson (4-0) held the Bears hitless while fanning six over the final three innings for the win.
“Colton all week was huge,” Holm said of Johnson, who turned in 5⅓ scoreless innings in a win over Illinois on Tuesday.
In the series, ISU pitchers allowed seven earned runs while striking out 36 and walking seven over three games.