Crucial weekend for Illini baseball kicks of Friday night



By Jason Grodsky

It all comes down to this weekend for the Illinois baseball team.

Win or tie the series, and the Illini keep playing and advance to the Big Ten Tournament. Lose it, and the Illini could get an early start on summer, which sounds better than it actually is.

Illinois is currently tied for fifth-place in the Big Ten with Ohio State, posting a 14-12 conference record, and must split its four-game series with Michigan State to guarantee a spot in the tournament. The Spartans are 1 1/2 games behind the Illini for the final spot in next week’s tournament.

The Illini can also advance to the Big Ten Tournament if Ohio State has a poor showing against Penn State. But the Illini realize they can’t worry about what other teams do, the only thing they can do to guarantee that they will keep playing is win.

“Everything is in our own hands,” senior relief pitcher Brian Long said. “We control where we are going to end up. We can’t worry about what everyone is doing.”

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With their destiny in their own hands, the Illini will have the advantage of being able to be at home for their final series of the season. The Illini are 11-6 at home this season, as opposed to 10-15 on the road.

For the Illini seniors, it won’t just be an opportunity to keep playing, but it will also be the last time they play games at Illinois Field, which is even more incentive to go out and perform well according to Illini senior closer Jake Toohey.

Toohey and eight other seniors will be honored for their careers in Orange and Blue prior to Sunday’s series finale.

“It’s obviously important that we win at least two and that’s the most important thing about this weekend,” Toohey said. “I’ve had a lot of great memories here, from winning the Big Ten title in 2005 to sweeping Ohio State in 2005, and I want to go out on a good note.”

While the ceremony will be a special event for the Illini seniors, they hope it wont be the last time they put on an Illinois uniform.

For that to happen, the Illini will have to shut down a Spartan offense that is averaging just over five runs per game. The Spartans are led by junior infielder Steven Gerstenberg, who leads Michigan State in hitting with a .353 batting average and 31 runs scored.

“You play all year to put yourself in a position to play in a tournament and make a run at a championship,” head coach Dan Hartleb said. “We’re a very similar team to Michigan State and we’re capable of going out and doing a good job against them, but they won’t be a push over and we’re going to have to play well to keep our season alive.”