Baseball returns with Al Ogletree Classic title

“Consistent” is a word the pitchers on the Illinois baseball team have gotten used to hearing – probably because they have been anything but that.

“Last season, you never knew what you were going to get (with pitching),” said Illini sophomore pitcher Phil Haig. “It was pretty up and down.”

This weekend at the Al Ogletree Classic in Edinburg, Texas, strong performances on the mound enabled the Illini to board Sunday’s plane home as tournament champions.

“It feels good that people aren’t really questioning our pitching anymore,” Haig said.

The Illini (5-1) won all three of their games at the Classic, and Haig pitched eight innings in Friday’s 8-0 drubbing of host UT-Pan American (0-7). Junior catcher Aaron Johnson hit a grand slam in the first inning and freshman infielder Josh Parr batted 4-for-4, while Haig was credited with his second win in two starts, setting the bar high for the rest of the rotation.

But seniors Aaron Martin and Ben Reeser responded well. Martin started Saturday’s 4-2 win over Stephen F. Austin (2-5), allowing only one unearned run in eight innings of work. Reeser was credited with his first win of the season after lasting 7.2 innings in a 3-2 nail biter against UT-Arlington (4-4) on Sunday morning. Head coach Dan Hartleb was pleased with the team’s overall performance on the mound.

“(The pitchers) showed they can respond very well to adversity,” Hartleb said. “Last weekend we didn’t really come out of the gates the way we wanted to … but this weekend they were outstanding.”

Hartleb also was impressed with his team’s poise in Sunday’s narrow win over the Mavericks.

“You have to learn to win close games,” Hartleb said. “We were very composed, not only on the mound, but also offensively and defensively.”

Offensively, the Illini were led by Parr, who earned another start at second base this weekend. The freshman provided Illinois with a much needed spark at the plate, finishing the tournament 7-for-10 with 5 RBIs. His production stood out on a weekend when Hartleb felt the team’s offense was not up to its usual standards.

“We didn’t swing the bats well as a whole,” Hartleb said. “But in the end we found ways to get runs and win the game, and that’s the important thing.”

Parr credits Hartleb and the coaching staff for the hitting success he has enjoyed of late.

“In high school I was making good contact (with the ball), but I wasn’t hitting it hard,” Parr said. “Now I feel like I am, and that’s just from working with coaches before, during and sometimes after practice.”

Parr said the Illini will work to maintain their momentum this week in practice before next weekend’s date with No. 1 LSU. Illinois heads to Baton Rouge, La., on Friday for a three-game series against the Tigers.