Illini baseball stumbles out of the gate; softball comes out swinging

M

aybe I jinxed them.

After I wrote last week about the baseball team’s pitching prowess, Illinois went to Georgia State and turned in “one of the worst pitching performances in a three-game series” that manager Dan Hartleb said he’s been involved in.

Granted, it’s only their first series of the year, and the Illini have plenty of time to steady the ship. But they led in all three games going into the seventh inning and ended up dropping two of them to begin the season 1-2. In both losses it was the Illini bullpen that faltered, relinquishing late one-run leads, including a blown save in the ninth on Friday.

Squandering leads early in the season can rattle the confidence of a team and its fans. I knew it was going to be a long year for the 2013 Cubs when they blew multiple saves last April. It’s definitely too early to get overly concerned, but I’m sure Hartleb doesn’t want this to become a common theme going forward. Hopefully the Illini bullpen can tighten the screws.

The Illini offense had a good showing over the weekend, turning some of the question marks about the team’s hitting into exclamation points. Illinois actually outscored Georgia State 29-28, despite dropping two of three games. It looks like the burden of replacing Justin Parr and Thomas Lindauer’s 2013 production will be shared by Reid Roper, Will Krug, David Kerian and Ryan Nagle. Roper slugged two home runs in the series, which is just one short of his total from all of last season. Krug was 7 for 16 at the plate. If the Illini can get similar run production going forward, it will take considerable pressure off the pitching staff.

Let’s stay on the diamond, but shift our focus to softball. If you haven’t noticed the early season success of the Illinois softball team, it’s time to start paying attention. Terri Sullivan’s squad is 8-2 in the young season, with one of its losses coming against No. 1 Tennessee.

The Illini are getting it done with pitching. Led by freshman Brandi Needham, they have given up only 14 combined runs over the course of their eight wins. Their 8-0 start (which set a record for the best streak to begin a season in program history) included back-to-back shutouts. It’s somewhat surprising for a team that only returned one pitcher from last season.

The 8-2 start is a far cry from last season, when the Illini dropped 13 of their first 17 games. They’ll have their work cut out for them, as the 2014 schedule includes 20 teams that made the NCAA tournament last year. Still, look for the 2014 Illini to easily surpass their 2013 record of 22-27 and finish above .500.

We all know State Farm Center has turned into a House of Horrors for our beloved men’s and women’s hoops teams this winter. Wouldn’t it be nice if the play at neighboring Illinois and Eichelberger Fields gave fans something to cheer about this spring?

Alex is a sophomore in AHS. He can be reached at [email protected] and @aroux94.