In three-loss weekend, pitcher Haig stands out

By Steve Contorno

At a point in the season when pitching has been far from a strong point for the Illini, Phil Haig stood out as an answer to the team’s problems. In just his sixth start of the season, the freshman hurler showed maturity beyond his years, throwing a two-hit shutout in a 2-0 win over Purdue a day after Illinois’ two starters allowed 17 runs in a doubleheader.

“Phil was outstanding,” head coach Dan Hartleb said. “I was pleased after we had such a rough day yesterday on the mound that you have a freshman that walks out with that type of composure and got a big win for us.”

Haig’s line against the Boilermakers was impressive – three strikeouts, two walks and just 76 pitches and 25 batters faced in a seven-inning game – but his focus on the mound stood out. With the bases loaded after two botched bunts and no outs in the fifth, Haig stopped a comebacker and began a 1-2-3 double play. Haig then induced a ground out to second baseman Joe Bonadonna to end the inning. At the time, the Illini led just 1-0.

“That’s great that we were able to get that double play. I think that kept us going, kept my adrenaline pumping,” Haig said.

Haig showed signs of his youth at times – forgetting to cover first base on a grounder that turned into the first hit of the game – but his ability to keep the ball low and change speeds made him effective against a Purdue line up that scored 38 runs the rest of the series. And, with the Big Ten tournament set to begin Wednesday, Haig’s performance also gives Hartleb some thinking as to who will be the team’s No. 2 starter.

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“(Haig) could move up,” Hartleb said. “We’ll see what the match-ups are going to be and make a decision day to day.”

Despite a poor outing Friday, at 7-2 and winner of five of his last six, Kevin Manson will most likely stay the team’s top starter. After that, though, the race between Scott Shaw (4-3, 8.15 ERA) and Haig (2-2, 5.01) may have tightened up during the weekend.

“We’ll sit down and discuss everything,” Hartleb said. “At this point we just need to talk as a staff and figure out what we’re going to do.”

After entering the weekend with a chance to take second place from Purdue with a sweep, the Illini instead dropped to fourth in the conference and take that seed into the conference tournament, where they will play Ohio State in the first round. Penn State passed the Illini up with a 2-2 weekend. Of the starters, Haig certainly carries the momentum going into the Big Ten Tournament.

“After a good start, you always have a better mind-set going into games,” Haig said. “You’re not going to think about ‘I cant do this, I can’t do that.’ You’re just going to go out there and try to repeat what you did in the last start.”