Illini baseball looks to rebound in weekend tournament

Illinois baseball’s two losses in opening weekend stung starting pitcher Kevin Duchene more than his sunburn.

After falling to 1-2, the Illini will once again ditch the cold and try to recover this weekend against three teams in the Caravelle Resort’s Baseball at the Beach Tournament in Myrtle Beach, S.C. 

Friday will mark the first of two unfamiliar matchups as Illinois faces George Mason in the programs’ first ever meeting. Illinois will then take on tournament hosts Coastal Carolina on Saturday before Sunday’s finale against Wichita State, which Illinois last played in 1980.

Meanwhile, the Illini are still trying to understand the unknown face of last weekend’s pitching staff, which fell well below preseason expectations. Their three starters alone combined for 24 hits and 12 earned runs. Even in their win last Saturday, the Illini allowed 13 runs.

This weekend won’t be any easier for pitching, either, as both George Mason and Wichita State have displayed powerful offenses with 43 runs apiece on the season.

In four games, Wichita State has scored no fewer than 6 runs, its largest showing being a 21-2 win over Southern Illinois-Edwardsville. George Mason topped those numbers with two double-digit victories over Morehead State to accompany a shutout over USC-Upstate.

But head coach Dan Hartleb hadn’t even scouted the competition as of Monday afternoon because he said he is only ever concerned with his own team.

“I think we can be a very solid team, and we can have very solid pitching,” Hartleb said. “The thing this group has to understand is you can’t talk about it. You can expect it, but you have to work to achieve your goals.”

That work showed up in the offense last weekend in Georgia. While pitching seemed bogged down by preseason talk, Illinois came out swinging hard and often for a lineup that lost five position players in the offseason. 

Leadoff hitter Will Krug recorded hits in each of the three games, connecting seven times for three RBIs, a double and a triple. He also stole four bases, three at key points in Saturday’s win. Reid Roper supplemented the offense further with two home runs, a double and a base hit for seven RBIs on the weekend.

Sophomore Ryan Nagle also broke into the offensive spotlight Saturday, batting 4-for-5 with two doubles and four RBIs.

“I think we’re doing a pretty good job of getting the leadoff guys on, the top of the lineup on, and the guys in the middle of the order — just driving them in,” Roper said. “Maybe cutting down our strikeouts in certain situations (would help).”

In addition to expressing pride in the offense’s ability to overcome adverse situations, Hartleb also noted the entire team transitioned smoothly back into playing outdoors. 

“Sometimes you’ve got a little apprehension mentally the first time you at least play outside, your first swing, your first ball in the air,” Hartleb said. “I didn’t see any of that from our guys.”

The biggest question of the weekend will be how Illinois’ pitchers will respond to last week’s poor outing — an answer Duchene believes he has.

“I would say we learned a lot about ourselves,” he said of last weekend, “but I would also say this isn’t something to get used to. We’ll bounce back and we’ll be all right for the remainder of the season.”

Only more time in the sun will tell. 

 J.J. can be reached at [email protected] and @Wilsonable07.