Starting pitching the key for Illinois baseball in Big Ten Tournament

The Big Ten Tournament format may be just what the Illinois baseball team needs to prove it is the top squad in the conference.

The Illini are stacked with quality pitchers but lack an overpowering star along the lines of Ohio State’s Alex Wimmers or Indiana’s Eric Arnett. However, staff aces will likely throw just once in the six-team, double-elimination conference tournament that starts Wednesday and lasts until Saturday and possibly Sunday, making deep pitching staffs all the more important.

Illinois enters as the No. 4 seed and will open against No. 5-seed Michigan State on Wednesday. The Illini’s starting pitching was solid for the first six weeks of the Big Ten season but has struggled the last two weekends against Ohio State and Purdue, so junior shortstop Brandon Wikoff knows what the key to a long tournament run will be.

“We need quality innings out of our starting pitching,” Wikoff said. “If they can give us six, seven, maybe eight innings, that will save our bullpen.”

As of Saturday, Illinois head coach Dan Hartleb was planning on starting sophomore Phil Haig against the Spartans in the Illini’s opener. Haig is 6-3 with a 4.90 ERA but gave up six runs on 11 hits in five innings against Purdue last Thursday in a loss. Hartleb said he would probably go with freshman Will Strack in the Illini’s second game. Strack has been strong lately, picking up the win last Friday against the Boilermakers by allowing three runs in 6 1/3 innings.

“The biggest thing is getting ahead of guys (in the count),” Strack said. “The more guys I get ahead of, the better I’ll be able to do. Having three pitches, being able to mix it up, that helps.”

Another key could be whether senior starter Ben Reeser is healthy enough to pitch in the Big Ten Tournament. He sat out the Purdue series after injuring his back against Ohio State on May 10. Reeser is one of the most consistent pitchers in the Illinois rotation, going 3-0 with a 2.92 ERA in 10 starts.

In Michigan State (23-29), the Illini (33-18) face a team they swept during the first week of Big Ten play from March 27-29.

“We like that matchup,” Wikoff said of Michigan State. “We’re fine with whoever we play … We’ve beat everybody in the tournament, all five teams, some of them two times. We feel confident.”

The Spartans’ top pitchers are Tony Bucciferro, who is 5-2 with a 3.15 ERA, and A.J. Achter, who is 3-5 with a 3.48 ERA. At the plate, Eric Roof is hitting .339 with five home runs, 37 RBIs and 44 runs.

If the Illini defeat Michigan State, they will face top-seeded Ohio State on Thursday if No. 3-seed Indiana defeats No. 6-seed Purdue. If Illinois and the Boilermakers win, the Illini will face No. 2-seed Minnesota. A loss would send the Illinois to the consolation bracket and make for a long road back to the championship game.

Either way, Hartleb is ready to forget the disappointing regular-season finish that saw Illinois lose four of its final five games.

“You have to put everything you’ve done thus far behind you,” head coach Dan Hartleb said. “It doesn’t matter, we’re 0-0.”