Baseball looks to leapfrog Boilers in final Big Ten series

 

 

By Steve Contorno

For all the problems the Illinois baseball team had this year – losing their ace before the season, a self-described lack of consistency and weather that has affected nearly every Big Ten series – the Illini go into the final weekend of the conference season with a chance to sneak into second place. If the Illini can sweep their series this weekend with Purdue, they will move into second place in the Big Ten standings, giving them a first-round bye in next weekend’s conference tournament.

However, the Boilermakers have quite a bit at stake this weekend as well – they’re the second-place team the Illini are trying to jump.

“It’s a little bit of a rivalry game; (Purdue is) only about an hour and half away from us so it’ll be a good weekend of baseball – two teams that are really fighting for a lot, so there’s a lot on the line,” senior first baseman Ryan Hastings said.

As much as the Illini (29-20, 15-12 Big Ten) would like to sweep Purdue (27-22, 18-9), they’re still not guaranteed a spot in the conference tournament. Though unlikely, the Big Ten standings are close enough that the Illini could finish the weekend outside the top six. But with a magic number of just two, contingent on its own and Michigan State’s performances, the odds are in the team’s favor to make the tourney. The odds of sweeping Purdue, however, aren’t as good; the Illini haven’t taken four from the Boilermakers since 1999.

Nevertheless, outfielder Kyle Hudson is confident in Illinois’ chances in the series, which starts Thursday at 6:05 p.m.

“If you get that second seed, you get the bye, and you get to save a pitcher. It’s definitely big for us and just being at home I think we’ll be able to pull off what we need to do in front of our fans,” Hudson said.

On the mound for the Illini to start the series will be sophomore Kevin Manson, who has put up four consecutive wins and a 7-1 record on the season. Manson has developed into the staff’s ace, after Tanner Roark left the team for unexplained reasons, and has provided consistent pitching backed by excellent run support. The Illini are scoring 9.2 runs per game when Manson starts.

“It helps us go out there with confidence,” Hudson said of when Manson pitches well. “When your pitching is good, you feel confident at the plate that if you score a couple of runs that will probably be enough.”

After Manson, the pitching has been streaky throughout the season, as well as the hitting and defense. Head coach Dan Hartleb said the team has been able to put everything together on occasion but not often enough.

“There’s times this year when we have been an outstanding team in all three categories,” Hartleb said. “But we haven’t shown that consistency week in and week out or even day to day.”

Illinois is coming off a rain-shortened weekend in which the team dropped two of three to Ohio State. Weather has affected six of Illinois’ seven Big Ten series, Michigan being the only weekend in which games were played as schedule. With rain in the forecast, Hudson said it would be typical of this season if the clouds opened up.

“This year has been real tough with weather,” he said. “We’ve had so much trouble with rain outs. We got snowed out in Texas, if that tells you anything. Obviously, that’s something we can’t control, but we’re going to come out here ready to play.”

Hastings is confident the team will play all four games in what will be his final weekend at home in an Illinois jersey. The senior has had a productive year, posting five home runs and hitting at a .338 clip.

“The chance to play in front of your home crowd and in front of your family and friends, it’s a great opportunity to go out and show them what we got one last time,” he said.