Illini pitching lives up to the hype in weekend sweep

By Alex Roux

Dominance in sports is a special thing.

When you witness a dominating performance, you usually recognize it right away. The team or individual on the other end of such a performance has no chance from the start. You know it. They know it. Every one watching knows it.

And make no mistake, the Illinois baseball team’s performance was dominant in its four-game sweep of Florida and Florida Gulf Coast this past weekend.

The Illini pitching staff arrived from the north like a polar vortex and froze its opponents’ bats in Florida. Though the rotation was highly-touted entering the season, a four-game stretch like the one they turned in would probably seem a little too good to be true for any team.

On the weekend, the Illini pitchers allowed a stingy four runs in four games. I’m no math major, but that’s good for a 1.00 ERA. They only walked five batters on the weekend while recording 21 strikeouts. The Illini bats did enough to reward the fantastic pitching, and Illinois downed No. 23 Florida twice to complement its two wins over an FGCU squad that was 5-3 entering the weekend.

These were no slouches the Illini steamrolled. FGCU posted a 37-20 record last season, and Florida was nationally ranked entering the weekend. One would think that with their geographical warm-weather advantage, the Florida teams would have gotten the bat off their shoulders at some point. Even Jameis Winston and his Florida State Seminoles scored three runs against the Yankees and their major league arms in a recent exhibition.

Longevity was the key in the four wins, as each Illini starter worked deep into the games. Kevin Duchene led the way with a three-hit complete game shutout in the Illini’s 6-0 victory over the Gators. John Kravetz and Ryan Castellanos each logged seven innings to make it easy on the Illini bullpen in their respective victories, and Drasen Johnson went six deep in his winning outing.

I certainly didn’t see this four-game stretch coming. The Illini pitching was bound to break out of its slump at some point after a 2-4 start to the season, but this was quite the turnaround. This was everything head coach Dan Hartleb and pitching coach Drew Dickinson advertised about their much-hyped pitching staff in the preseason and then some. It’s a far cry from the first series of the season, which Hartleb deemed the worst pitching performance he’s seen in a three-game series.

It would be hard to envision the Illini sustaining their pitching success at such a high level going forward. But if they can establish more consistency with a few dominating performances sprinkled in, the Illini will be in good shape. The run production has been good enough so far at 5.7 runs per game. The combination of solid starting pitching and an adequate offense has the potential to take pressure off an Illini bullpen that struggled in its first series.

No one should expect a team 1.00 ERA the rest of the way, but last weekend was very encouraging for a squad looking to shake off its early struggles. The ship seems to be steadying, and the elite pitching is a good sign of things to come.

Alex is a sophomore in AHS. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @aroux94.