Baseball tries to fix errors



By Jason Grodsky

The Illinois baseball team is reverting back to the basics.

Heading into this weekend’s four-game series at Minnesota, the Illini (18-13, 6-6 Big Ten) have lost a season-high five straight games, capped off by a 13-3 loss to Eastern Illinois on Tuesday. This following the team putting together the program’s best 20-game stretch in eight years, going 16-4.

When you ask the Illini players what happened in their recent 180-degree reversal, they point to a simple facet of the game: defense.

Going into last weekend’s series against Big Ten-leading Michigan, Illinois was ranked as the top defensive team in the conference with a .977 fielding percentage, committing just 22 errors.

But in the past five games, the errors have jumped from 22 to 37 and the team’s fielding percentage has dropped to .967, leaving the Illini looking for answers to their recent defensive woes.

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“Everything we were doing well at the beginning of the year we stopped doing,” shortstop Brandon Wikoff said. “We just have to get back to the basics and not panic too much. It all goes back to the fundamentals and doing the little things right, catching the ball and throwing the ball.”

In their last five losses, the Illini have been outscored 57-22 and are looking to take a different approach at the plate and put everything else behind them going into their series with the Gophers (15-17, 5-7).

“We’re just on a short-term memory basis right now,” head coach Dan Hartleb said. “Guys are still confident and realize the mistakes they’ve made, and even though we’re all frustrated, we have to find a way to stick together.”

Unfortunately for the Illini, they haven’t had too much luck with the Gophers in the recent past. Since 2004, Illinois is 6-13 against Minnesota, with three of those losses coming in Big Ten Tournament play.

“We’re on wits-end as far as getting beat, so I think you’re going to see us go out there this weekend and try to put things back together and be back on a positive note,” first baseman Ryan Hastings said. “If we can get one thing right going for us, we can get the ball rolling again.”

Illinois will need to get back on track this weekend if they are to try and stay in contention for a berth to the Big Ten Tournament at season’s end.

The Illini fell from second place in the Big Ten to fourth place, and another bad weekend could send the team into a downward spiral, landing them in the cellar of the conference standings.

“This weekend becomes huge for us because we’re right in the middle of the pack in the conference, and we have to find a way to separate and get back into the top tier and good position for the tournament,” Wikoff said.

Hastings honored as one of nation’s top scholastic seniors

Fifth-year senior first baseman Ryan Hastings was named one of 10 finalists for the Lowe’s Senior CLASS Award on Wednesday.

Hastings is the lone player from the Big Ten to be nominated for the award, which is given to the most outstanding senior student-athlete in NCAA Division I baseball based on classroom work, character, community involvement and competition.

The award will be voted on by fans, coaches, media and sponsors, with the winner and the Lowe’s All-Senior All-America team announced at the 2008 College World Series in Omaha, Neb.

After transitioning from second base to first base to fill the hole left by Mike Rohde last season, Hastings has hit .324 with 20 RBIs, four doubles, two triples and three home runs for a .490 slugging percentage.

Last season he was named Academic All-District by CoSIDA/ESPN the Magazine in 2007 after being an Academic All-Big Ten in 2006 and 2007. The Mattoon, Ill., native finished his bachelor’s degree in recreation, sport and tourism in May 2007 with a 3.46 GPA and is enrolled in the sport management master’s program with a 4.0 GPA and plans to graduate in the summer of 2008.

“Ryan’s done a great job of producing results on the field and in the classroom,” Hartleb said. “He gives us a great deal of leadership and is someone the younger players look up to. I’m really proud of his accomplishments and that he decided to come back for his final year.”