Illini hit road for Big Ten opener



By Jason Grodsky

After a brief one-game stint at home, the Illinois baseball team will take its show back on the road to open the 2007 Big Ten season.

The Illini will square off with Purdue at Lambert Field in West Lafayette, Ind., for a four-game series starting Friday afternoon and concluding Sunday afternoon with a doubleheader scheduled on Saturday.

“This is an important time for us as a team,” head coach Dan Hartleb said. “We’ve gotten through some things early on in the season so far and we’re better as a team. I think we’re very capable of getting off to a good start in the Big Ten and it’s something I expect us to do.”

Illinois comes in having won five of its last seven games to get within two games of .500 at 7-9.

The Illini were shut out 4-0 in their home opener against Indiana State, making it the first time since a 2-0 loss at Indiana on May 14, 2006 that the Illini were unable to push a run across the plate.

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Even though the Illini could not get on the scoreboard against the Sycamores, they come into Big Ten play leading the conference in hitting with a .331 team average and are confident they will get back on track at the plate with the start of the Big Ten season.

“We didn’t do a good job making adjustments at the plate in our last game,” senior first baseman Mike Rohde said. “As an offense, we didn’t feel we did our part for the team and hopefully we can use that as an eye opener heading into this weekend.”

The Illini also come into conference play featuring the league’s best base stealer, senior shortstop Shawn Roof. Roof set a record for stolen bases by an Illini in Big Ten play last season with 16 and has already accumulated 14 steals in 16 attempts this season.

But, in order for Roof to have a chance to swipe bases, he and the rest of the Illini will have to get on base, something not easily done against the Boilermakers pitching staff.

Purdue pitchers are only allowing opposing batters to hit .278 against them and lead the Big Ten in strikeouts with 134. Their staff is headlined by sophomore right-hander Josh Lindblom, who is 2-2 with a 2.56 ERA and is tied for the conference lead in strikeouts with 33.

“(Purdue) has improved their pitching staff a lot this season and are one of the better pitching teams in the conference,” Hartleb said. “We’re going to have to play and hit well if we’re going to come away with some wins.”

The Boilermakers (10-8) also come into the series featuring one of the conference’s best hitters.

Purdue sophomore first baseman and outfielder Ryne White is fifth in the league in batting average at .420 and is tied for fourth in RBIs with 17.

White has also belted three home runs this season for a Boilermakers team that is top-ranked in the Big Ten in home runs with 12.

Illinois will send four sophomores to the mound in hopes of keeping the Boilermakers in the yard.

Tanner Roark will start the opener on Friday, Scott Shaw and Mike Stankiewicz will pitch in the doubleheader on Saturday and Aaron Martin, the Illini’s hottest pitcher, will get the call for the series finale on Sunday.

The Illini split with the Boilermakers in the regular season series last year, but the Boilermakers have ended the Illini’s season the past two seasons in the Big Ten Tournament.

“We had a tough series with them last season and I don’t know if there is any bad blood between us and them yet, but they are developing into a rival for us because they ended our season the past two years so we don’t really like them that much,” Rohde said.