Illini baseball begins season in Georgia

By Nicholas Fortin

Friday marks the start of 2014 season for the Illinois baseball team, and to dodge the cold of Illinois weather, the Illini will travel to Georgia State to kick off the year.

“I’m excited that we get to start,” head coach Dan Hartleb said. “It’s always a fun time of year. It’s going to be an interesting time for us because we have a lot of youth, which I like from the standpoint that I think we’re very talented.”

The Panthers finished with the same number of wins (35) as the Illini last season. Aside from their shared win total, though, the two teams are quite different.

Illinois was a team that was centered on offensive production and supplemented by superb pitching last season, as was Georgia State. This season, however, the Panthers are returning almost their entire lineup, which was near the top offensively in their conference last year.

“If you look at what they did last year, they were one of the top teams in the country from an offensive standpoint, both batting average-wise and runs scored,” Hartleb said. “They have the majority of their offense back, which is going to be tough, but that plays into our strength as well. They have, from what I understand, a ballpark where the ball flies out, a little bit smaller ballpark, but good pitching can take care of that.”

Despite losing two key pitchers from last year, Illinois returns a younger starting rotation in sophomore Kevin Duchene and juniors John Kravetz and Drasen Johnson, all of whom are expected to improve this season.

“I feel really good about our pitching staff,” Hartleb said. “Those guys need to do a great job for us to put us in position to win early in the year. I think we’re very capable of hitting and playing good defense and being that same kind of offensive team, but there are more unknowns to try to figure out who’s going to step into roles and handle some adversity and also handle some tough situations.”

But although pitching is a strength of Illinois this season, Hartleb said the rest of the team still needs to do its job of scoring runs.

Duchene said the Illini will need to limit the runs allowed by cutting down on walks and getting ahead in the count if they want to win, which has made the focus of practice this week both defense and playing errorless baseball.

“We’ve been working on a lot of stuff,” Duchene said. “Just keeping runs off the board and making all of our plays. Playing errorless baseball and trying to scratch a few runs across. We feel really good going into this weekend, we feel like we can play with anybody in the nation.”

Nicholas can be reached at [email protected] and @IlliniSportsGuy.