Illinois hosts Akron after 3 weekends of traveling

By Peter Zervakis

Illinois designated hitter Pete Cappetta is happy to be going nowhere this weekend.

“Long plane rides get a little old after a while,” Cappetta said. “Those and the long bus rides to and from airports.”

After three consecutive weekends on the road, the No. 21 Illini (7-2) begin play at home Friday with a four-game series against Akron (2-11). This year’s home opener will be the earliest game played at Illinois Field since March 13, 1986, and Cappetta, a sophomore, is hoping to produce some offense in front of the home fans. He is hitting .387 this season, good for his first on the team, and he has also recorded five RBIs.

“We’ve been seeing the ball pretty well lately as a team,” Cappetta said. “We hit the ball real well last weekend (at LSU).”

Akron has struggled to start 2009, with its most impressive performance being a 10-7 loss to then-No. 25 Michigan. Sophomore pitcher Benjamin Danziger brings a respectable 3.18 ERA to the mound to lead a staff that has given up 92 runs this season. Offensively, Akron is led by senior outfielder Matt Roberts, who is hitting a team-high .396 with nine RBIs. But Illini head coach Dan Hartleb has warned his squad that statistics can often be deceptive.

“They’ll be a well-coached team and they’ll be scrappy,” Hartleb said. “You can throw their record out the window because they’ve played good teams.”

Hartleb also said his team’s two victories in Baton Rouge, La., last weekend against then-No.1 LSU will only increase Akron’s motivation to knock Illinois off at home.

“We’ve got a target on our back now,” Hartleb said. “They are going to approach this series like we approached last weekend’s.”

Sophomore pitcher Phil Haig seemed to think similarly.

“We don’t really have anything to be satisfied with yet,” Haig said. “We haven’t even started Big Ten play.”

Haig is the Illini’s Friday night starter – a tough role to fill, as a losing effort on his part could lead to poor team morale for the rest of the weekend. But Haig said he takes pride in the responsibility that comes with pitching on Fridays.

“I see it as an honor that they give me the ball and let me go out there to set the tone for the weekend,” Haig said. “Going out there, I have the mind-set that how I’m going to do is how we’ll do the whole weekend.”

Haig’s 0.47 ERA leads the team, and the Illinois pitching staff has followed his example. The Illini have a team ERA of 4.67, down from 6.44 in 2008, and the pitchers are eager to strut their stuff in front of the home crowd.

“We’re excited and ready to play in front of our fans … and a good Illinois crowd rather than some other school’s,” Haig said.

Haig also said this excitement should lead to a good weekend for the Orange and Blue.

“(The series) just depends on who comes ready to play and who wants it more,” Haig said. “And that’s going to be us.”