Illini hot heading into Big Ten play

 

 

By Jason Grodsky

The Illini will start their regular season conference play the same way they ended it last season.

Illinois (9-6) will take on Michigan State (7-9) this weekend to open up Big Ten play in East Lansing, Mich. The two teams will meet with vivid memories of last year’s series still in their heads. Last season, the Illini and Spartans met each other in their final conference series of the year with a spot in the Big Ten Tournament on the line.

After winning the first game of the four-game set, the Illini dropped the next two and were put in a must-win situation to qualify for the six-team conference tournament.

By the fifth inning of the series finale, the fate of the Illini’s postseason dreams looked bleak. Illinois trailed 7-0 heading into the home half of the fifth but chipped away at the Spartans lead and overtook them with the help of two home runs by last year’s Big Ten Player of the Year, catcher Lars Davis.

The 8-7 comeback victory gave Illinois a fifth-place finish in the conference and its third consecutive Big Ten Tournament berth, while leaving the Spartans one spot out of the tournament.

“It was an awesome, do-or-die series last year,” senior first baseman Ryan Hastings said. “The last two seasons we’ve fought with them for the last spot in the tournament so we know they will be gunning for us.”

With memories of last year’s suspenseful series still fresh in the minds of the players, the Illini head into this weekend’s four-game set riding a three-game winning streak and as winners of seven of their last nine games.

The spark of the team’s current hot streak has been their performance at the plate where they have displayed excellent discipline.

“We haven’t had to talk about having patience a lot because our guys have done such a good job with it all year,” head coach Dan Hartleb said.

“I’ve been pleased with the progress we’ve made in that area, and we’ve really had guys mature in a hurry at the plate.”

As a team the Illini have walked 63 times and have a Big Ten-best on-base percentage of .411. When they are on base they haven’t been shy about putting on their track shoes either.

Illinois, the Big Ten’s reigning stolen base champions, have once again gotten off to a fast start on the base paths, stealing 23 bases on 29 attempts to put runners in scoring position.

“We’ve tried to work pitchers deep into counts so far this year and it’s paid off,” third baseman Brandon Wikoff said.

“We’re doing everything we can to get on base and hopefully it will continue this weekend and we can get off to a good start in conference.”

Illinois has capitalized on its scoring opportunities, plating 30 runs in its two games this week against Judson University and Indiana State at Illinois Field.

The Illini’s run production has overshadowed its pitching. While the Illini have put up crooked numbers on the scoreboard, their hurlers have given up an average of 4.3 earned runs over the last three games.

Taking the mound this weekend for the series opener will be sophomore Kevin Manson, who will be followed by juniors Mike Stankiewicz and Scott Shaw for Saturday’s double-header. Junior Aaron Martin will take the hill in Sunday’s finale.

Martin earned his team-high third win of the season on Wednesday, giving up two hits in three innings of work in the Illinois’ 15-4 win over Indiana State.

“We’re definitely looking to use the last few games as a springboard into this weekend,” Martin said. “We know our guys can score a lot of runs and we’ll have run support, we just have to go out and attack their hitters.”