Column: Who needs the long ball?

This past weekend, the Illinois baseball team began defense of its 2005 Big Ten regular-season crown with a four-game series against Purdue at Illinois Field. The Illini opened the weekend with wins in games one and two, but the Boilermakers responded with victories in games three and four to force a split.

Illinois (13-8, 2-2 Big Ten) has gone through serious personnel changes since last season with the losses of seven everyday players and two pitchers to graduation and the MLB draft, but the new-look Illini still know how to play – even if their style isn’t quite the same as it was last season.

In 2005, Illinois had five seniors, three juniors and a sophomore in its everyday lineup. Sunday’s starting nine was littered with junior-college transfers and underclassmen. And even though most of the nine have college experience at some levels in the past, only two players, third baseman Mike Rohde and rightfielder Trevor Huisinga spent significant time in last season’s lineup.

Obviously, this leaves first-year head coach Dan Hartleb in a sticky situation, but thus far the Illini skipper has done a tremendous job of rotating different players into each game and giving each player a chance to test the waters.

Gone from the lineup are the bashers and mashers that filled stat sheets last season, replaced instead by a roster of singles hitters who like to string hits together to score.

In the first game of Saturday’s doubleheader, closer-turned-starter Jake Toohey pitched six innings, allowing only two runs as the Illini won 3-2. In the game, Illinois recorded nine hits, all singles.

Afterwards, a fellow reporter turned to me and said, “It’d be nice to see an extra-base hit now and again. They’re going to have to single teams to death to win.”

He’s right.

While the Illini are a good offensive team and are able to put runners on base, they lack one true big bopper in the middle of the lineup who can provide instant offense.

When asked about the lack of power, second baseman Ryan Hastings said, “We have some guys who have a little pop in their bats, but we also need to do some things to move runners over and play small ball and hit-and-run a little more than we’ve done in the past, and I think we’re adjusting to that. It’s an exciting style of baseball to play, so it’s been fun so far.”

And don’t be fooled. This is still a talented Illinois team.

They field the ball well, they’re fundamentally sound and even though their starting rotation still appears to be a work in progress, they have a lot of talented arms who, when used in the right positions, could make up a dynamite bullpen.

First-team all-Big Ten starter Brian Blomquist still anchors the rotation while former starter Matt Whitmore has moved swiftly into the bullpen and already has five saves.

Which is why it all comes down to hitting. Because in the end, it doesn’t matter how a run crosses the plate, it just matters that it crossed.

Lucas Deal is a junior in Communications. He can be reached at [email protected]