Weekend series with Hoosiers crucial to Big Ten race

By Alex Roux

Guess who’s coming to town this weekend?

No, I’m not talking about award-winning director Spike Lee, who will be visiting downtown Champaign on Friday for Roger Ebert’s annual film festival.

And nope, I’m not referring to the thousands of runners who will arrive in the twin cities for Saturday’s Illinois Marathon.

I’m talking about the Big Ten’s best baseball team, the Indiana Hoosiers, who begin a three-game series Friday against the Illini at Illinois Field. The Hoosiers bring an 11-1 conference record to Champaign, and the series gives the Illini a golden opportunity. Illinois trails Indiana in the Big Ten standings by two games, sitting in second place with a 9-3 conference record.

If the Illini are going to make a run at the Big Ten title, they can’t falter this weekend. Losing two or three games to the Hoosiers would realistically drop them out of title contention. The remainder of Illinois’ conference schedule includes three Big Ten teams with winning records, and the team closes the season with six straight games on the road. Indiana faces a pretty light conference schedule the rest of the way.

The last 14 months have been exciting to say the least for the Indiana baseball program. The Hoosiers won 25 of their first 28 games in 2013, and got to enjoy their winning streak in a new home. Bart Kaufman Field, the Hoosiers’ new state-of-the-art home ballpark, opened in March of last year. Indiana went on to win the Big Ten title outright for the first time since 1932, but they weren’t done yet. The best season in Indiana baseball history culminated in the school’s first appearance in the College World Series.

The 2014 Hoosiers don’t appear to have lost any momentum from last year. Although this year’s squad is not as dominant, it still has an impressive 25-11 overall record through Tuesday. But the Illini have some momentum of their own; they were riding a four-game winning streak prior to Wednesday night’s neutral-site game against Missouri.

The Illini will have to lean on their notoriously strong pitching to keep the Indiana bats in check. But while pitching has been Illinois’ strong suit, Indiana’s arms have been even better. The Hoosiers boast a 2.52 ERA to the Illini’s 3.08. And don’t expect the Illini to out-slug them. While the two teams are nearly even in batting average, Indiana has hit 25 home runs on the season compared to nine for Illinois.

So if the Illini are to make a push for their 30th Big Ten title in program history and their first since 2011, this weekend is crucial. An unlikely, but not impossible, sweep of the Hoosiers would put Illinois in sole possession of first place in the Big Ten.

It’s the biggest series of the regular season, and it should be a fun one. Area companies are giving out free food at the ballpark, the weather will be warm and the biggest crowd of the season will likely show up on Sunday. We already know the Illini are pretty good, but soon we’ll find out if they’re for real.

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