Illinois baseball looks for midweek success against in-state rival

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Illinois’ pitcher Will Strack (37) celebrates with teammate Josh Parr (9) after defeating Michigan State 3-0 on Sunday, March 29, 2009 at Illinois Field.

By Meghan Montemurro

A road game against an in-state school sandwiched between home games can concern any coach. But Illinois head coach Dan Hartleb,is confident his team’s pitching and balanced offense will translate into a non-conference win for the 25th-ranked Illini baseball squad when they play Illinois State on Tuesday.

“The thing we need to do as a team is be consistent on the road,” said Hartleb on Monday. “We’ll be prepared.

“We need a couple of guys that don’t have a lot of innings to step up. We’re going to go up against a weekend starter that has a lot of experience.”

Riding a four-game win streak, the Orange and Blue (16-5, 3-0 Big Ten) face a Redbirds team that defeated Indiana State, 11-6, on Friday but went 2-2 the previous four games. Illinois’ pitching staff will need to keep sophomore outfielder Tyler McNeely, who is hitting .344, off the bases with his team-leading seven stolen bases in eight attempts. Senior infielder Dominic Altobelli knows the depth of the pitching staff will be the key.

“Midweek games this year are so big for us. We have to have our best pitchers out there all the time,” said Altobelli after Illinois’ win on Sunday against the Spartans. “It’ll be good to see what those four or five good starters can do … with the two freshmen and the veterans coming back, we have a great chance to run the table.”

Illinois State (11-7, 3-1 MVC) will present Illinois the chance to improve following conference success.

“Me, Bryan (Roberts), (Josh) Parr, Willie (Argo) … we all come out ready to play and it’s nice to have something to build off of, and know we can improve on that down the road,” said freshman pitcher Will Strack.

Strack was recognized by the conference as the Big Ten Pitcher of the Week after allowing four hits and no earned runs in a complete game win against Michigan State on Sunday. The freshman also struck out three and surrendered only one walk.

“Phil (Haig) and Ben (Reeser) both had injuries,” Strack said. “But the team needed me so I needed to step in and get things done.”

Despite the sidelining of some players because of injury, the Illini are in the midst their best start since 1989, when they went 18-3 to open the season.

“Injuries are a part of athletics,” said Hartleb. “All the pitchers stepped up this week and have done a great job.

“The reason I think we’re successful is because one through nine, we’re solid. Baseball is a tough game, it’s a crazy game.”

Peter Zervakis contributed to this report