Baseball: Illini welcome Wildcats

By Lucas Deal

Now firmly holding a two-game lead in the Big Ten Conference race, the Illinois baseball team will host Northwestern this weekend in a four-game series at Illinois Field.

The series will begin tonight at 6:05, and will also consist of a doubleheader tomorrow beginning at 4:00 p.m. before wrapping up Sunday afternoon at 1.

The Illini enter the weekend coming off a big win Tuesday afternoon in Carbondale against Southern Illinois. Trailing 7-5 in the eighth, Illinois rallied with single runs in the eighth and ninth to force extra innings, and finished with a 9-7 victory in 10 innings. Aaron Saving got the win for the Illini, pitching three fantastic innings out of the bullpen, allowing only one hit while striking out four.

The win improved Illinois’ overall record to 27-14-1 on the year. The Illini are also 14-6 in the Big Ten, and lead both Minnesota and Iowa by two games with only 12 games to play. Unfortunately for the Illini, after this weekend, they will finish their conference season with a trip to Minneapolis and a home series against the Hawkeyes.

But, if the Illini can maintain their lead over these final three weekends, they could win their first conference title since 1998.

Illini senior centerfielder Drew Davidson has been told that this team shares many similarities with the 1998 team, and he hopes that can continue.

“It’s definitely the best team I’ve been on since I’ve been here,” Davidson said. “I heard it’s been compared to the ’98 team which was one out away from the College World Series.”

Northwestern, on the other hand, is 21-19 overall and 10-10 in conference play. The Wildcats have been led all year by hot-hitting catcher Pat McMahon. The Mundelein, Ill. native is currently tied with Purdue’s Mitch Hilligoss for the Big Ten lead in hitting with a .412 average. The Wildcats are hitting a combined .303 as a team.

On Friday night, Illini head coach Itch Jones will start junior Brian Blomquist. Blomquist had won six straight decisions dating back to March before losing 3-2 at Penn State last Friday. He is 8-2 on the season with a 2.09 ERA.

Jones will start senior Jimmy Conroy and junior Matt Whitmore in Saturday’s doubleheader. Conroy is 6-1 on the season with a 3.14 ERA while Whitmore is 4-1 with a 5.98 earned run average. Jones is yet to make a decision on his Sunday afternoon starter.