Baseball Florida-bound for five games in five days

Willie+Argo+crosses+the+plate+at+the+Illinis+fourth+game+against+Akron+at+Illinois+Field+in+Urbana%2C+Mar.+15%2C+2009.%0A

Willie Argo crosses the plate at the Illini’s fourth game against Akron at Illinois Field in Urbana, Mar. 15, 2009.

By Peter Zervakis

He’s a freshman, but outfielder Willie Argo does not really look the part.

“He’s not a typical freshman when you look at his strength,” said Illini head coach Dan Hartleb. “He’s also a mentally tough kid and I think he’s handled things quite well.”

Argo exploded onto the college baseball scene two weeks ago when he homered in his first three official at-bats against then-No. 1 LSU. This season, he has hit .526 with four home runs and 11 RBIs — good for first and third on the team, respectively — in just six games of action.

“A lot of it has to do with where I’m hitting in the order,” Argo said. “I’m hitting at the bottom of the order, in the eight hole, so I’m seeing a lot of fastballs, and I’m a good fastball hitter.”

After sweeping a four-game series against Akron at home last weekend, Argo and the No. 19 Illini (11-2) will head south for spring break to play five games in the RussMatt Central Florida Invitational. Illinois opens play against Army (5-6) on Friday night in Lakeland, Fla. The Black Knights’ pitching corps has struggled to find an identity so far this season.

“I’m excited to see what the competition’s like and to spend five days straight playing baseball,” Argo said.

Saturday’s matchup pits the Illini against Hartford (1-8). Just like Army, Hartford’s pitching corps has gotten off to a rocky start in 2009. The Hawks currently have a team ERA of 8.50, though Hartleb said the Illini should not expect to beat them solely by hitting the ball.

“No matter who you play, the pitcher dictates the way the game goes,” Hartleb said. “We need to go out and do a good job against their pitching and also to dictate the game with good pitching from our standpoint.”

Sophomore outfielder Casey McMurray said he is confident the pitchers will be up to the task.

“Our pitching staff has made the difference this year,” McMurray said. “Our hitting has always been good since I’ve been here, so if we continue hitting and also getting this type of pitching, we’ll be a pretty good team down the road.”

After being named to the Freshman All-American Team in 2008, McMurray is hitting .320 with 7 RBIs on the year. He has recorded at least one hit in 12 of Illinois’ 13 games, and his patient, consistent batting style complements Argo’s power.

The Illini will wrap up the week in Winter Haven, Fla., with a three-game series against Central Connecticut State (4-3).