Illini baseball looks to avoid midweek upset against Bradley

It’s hard to sidetrack Illinois catcher Aaron Johnson— especially when it comes to his long-term goals.

“We want to get our record good enough to get an automatic bid to the (NCAA) Tournament,” Johnson said. “The way you do that is by taking care of those games in midweek.”

The Illini (18-7, 4-2) baseball team hosts Bradley (9-15) on Tuesday at Illinois Field in one of those midweek games. The showdown comes after the Illinois dropped two out of three to Indiana last weekend.

But Illinois head coach Dan Hartleb said his players will be focused and ready to go Tuesday, having pushed the series with the Hoosiers to the back of their minds.

“Our guys understand that it’s a long season,” Hartleb said. “They understand that what happened in the past doesn’t matter and that they must look forward to Tuesday.”

The Braves, who got off to a slow start to the season, are coming into Tuesday’s contest with momentum, having won the final three in a four-game series with North Dakota last weekend. A pair of seniors pace Bradley offensively.

Infielder Tommy Fitzgerald is batting .316 on the year with three home runs and 16 RBIs, while catcher Adam Kimble has hit .314 with two homers and 12 RBIs.

Illinois has yet to name a starting pitcher for the game, but senior right-hander Ben Reeser said he is confident that any member of the Illini staff could get the job done — even one of the freshmen.

“I’ll talk with the younger guys (before Tuesday),” Reeser said. “It’s all about just showing them that you believe in them, and that you believe they can get it done.”

Hartleb said he was unsure if he would have any pitcher receive a full start, as he could choose to have five or six throw for simply one inning apiece.

But freshman Corey Kimes, as well as senior Mike Stankiewicz and junior Kevin Manson, could see time on the mound. The Illini are hoping to step it up on offense after a weekend that saw them record only 10 runs in 28 innings of play against Indiana.

Junior shortstop Brandon Wikoff, who is hitting .402 with 14 RBIs on the year, seemed to be the only consistent offensive weapon for Illinois against the Hoosiers. Wikoff went 7-for-12 on the weekend but only recorded one RBI. He said he is confident the rest of the batting order will get back on track.

“We look up and down our lineup, and we know we have hitters that are capable,” Wikoff said. “We all believe in each other.”

One of those hitters is Johnson, who has batted .367 this season with four homers and a team-leading 28 RBIs. He said the Illini must exercise patience at the plate to score runs against Bradley.

“I struggled a little bit (against Indiana),” Johnson said. “But what I’ve been doing pretty well all year is just recognizing pitches that I get in the strike zone.

“If you get pitches, you can hit every at-bat you give yourself a chance … being a little more patient and hitting pitches I can handle has been key.”