Baseball: Illini start season in S Carolina

By Erik Hall

Today the Illinois baseball team starts the 2005 season at 11:30 a.m. against Kent State. The game will be the first of three for Illinois in the four-team N.I.A. Shootout.

This weekend, two Illinois seniors will have the chance to return to former success as Illini.

Senior first baseman Dusty Bensko is expected to start Friday against Kent State. Bensko is coming off a junior year in which his numbers dropped significantly from his sophomore season.

Senior right-handed pitcher Jimmy Conroy is scheduled to start Saturday’s game against No. 21 Winthrop. Conroy is returning from a right elbow injury that caused him to miss most of last season’s second half.

“I believe the goal this weekend for us is just to have everything carry over from practice,” Conroy said. “We look great in practice. If we just go out like we have been every day in practice and play hard and give it our best, than that is a successful weekend for us.”

Conroy struck out 11 batters against Michigan State on April 11, 2004. After facing the Spartans, Conroy tried to come back three different times from the injury.

After Michigan State, Conroy pitched 10 innings in the final 29 games. He pitched 47 innings with 41 strikeouts in Illinois’ first 26 games.

He did not play summer baseball and had to leave the last game he pitched in – against Northwestern on May 9 – after the first inning because his elbow was sore.

“Sure, I haven’t thrown in about a year, but I’ve had good preparation,” Conroy said. “I’ve done everything I need to do at this point to be ready.”

In his first game this season, Illinois’ coaches are sending Conroy against a team that he faced in 2004. Conroy started and earned a win against Winthrop last year. It was Illinois’ only win against the Eagles in the three-game series.

“He hasn’t been as sharp as he was a year ago,” Illinois head coach Itch Jones said. “I think he’s in good shape and maybe the competition will bring the best out of him. This is what we have to see.”

Jones does not have great concern about Bensko because the 6-foot-4, part-time pitcher has returned as the starting first baseman in 2005.

Bensko opened the 2004 season as Illinois’ starting first baseman. Once conference games started, Illinois experimented with different first basemen.

Three other players started at first base in 27 of Illinois’ final 36 games. Bensko started at first in the other nine games with seven of those starts coming in Illinois’ last eight games.

“I struggled last year,” Bensko said. “It would be nice to get off to a good start.”

Bensko’s batting average dropped from .326 in 2003 to .267 during 2004.

Bensko finished with 36 fewer at-bats last season than during his sophomore season. His number of at-bats fell by 25 percent (141 to 105), but his decrease in other production areas fell further.

Bensko suffered a 48 percent drop in runs scored (27 in 2003 to 14 in 2004), a 44 percent decrease in RBIs (29 to 16) and a 39 percent slip in hits (46 to 28).

“Dusty, he’s a guy that just needs to step up,” said junior catcher Chris Robinson. “He knows that and everybody knows that and he really has this year.

“He took a good long look in the mirror and he said to himself that he wants to be here and he wants to be the starting first baseman. Hopefully this year he will step in and play like he can because if he plays like he can he is going to be an all-star for sure.”

Junior right-handed pitcher Andy Sigerich will take the mound for Illinois today and get the Illini started in 2005.

“The whole ballclub, I think they are excited,” Jones said. “We feel we are a better ballclub on paper than we were a year ago. Now we’ve got to go out and prove that we are a good ballclub because last year’s team really wasn’t that good.”

EXTRA NOTES

– As of Wednesday, Illinois had not chosen a starting pitcher to face Wagner on Sunday.

– Sophomore infielder Ryan Hastings is expected to start at second base today despite continued right wrist pain.