Illini pitching falls apart for baseball in opening weekend

Junior pitcher Drasen Johnson doesn’t care about many numbers from last Sunday’s game.

Following his first start since moving into the regular rotation, he doesn’t care about the 105 pitches he threw or his career-high 10 strikeouts; the only numbers he cares about are 10-6, the final score of Illinois baseball’s second loss of the weekend to Georgia State.

“It’s nothing special because we lost, so that’s a personal stat and has nothing to do with winning the game,” Johnson said of his performance Sunday. “The first goal is to win the game.”

Johnson kept the mound for 6 1/3 innings in Sunday’s game before retiring to the dugout with the Illini leading 6-4. Despite allowing 13 hits — the most by any pitcher on either team — his 10 strikeouts more than doubled the count of the other two Illini starters combined. Even the second highest on the staff, reliever Tyler Jay, only managed to throw five.

He also struck out seven of nine batters on his third time through the lineup, a time when pitching coach Drew Dickinson typically checks on the condition of starters and decides whether to pull them.

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“The reason why is he got tired,” Dickinson said. “He got tired, but his mechanics stayed the same, and everything was at the bottom of the knees, at the bottom of the strike zone where you’re taught to pitch.”

Nevertheless, every member of the Illinois pitching staff holds the same sentiment. Personal statistics mean nothing when they surrender 45 hits and 27 earned runs en route to a 1-2 start to the season — especially after being advertised as the strongest part of Illinois baseball in the preseason.

The weekend struggles can’t be blamed on any specific pitcher, either. No. 1 starter Kevin Duchene said he thought they elevated too many pitches in the strike zone as an entire staff throughout the weekend. While the sophomore credited the Panthers’ hitting, he also added that the quality of pitches was poor — and they paid for it.

“As much as people want to find excuses for it, there really are none,” Duchene said. “We’re a much better ball team as a whole, and the pitching staff especially, we’re much better than what we showed.”

Head coach Dan Hartleb shared Duchene’s frustration and was left disappointed by his pitching staff, which he said is filled with established players who have been in pressure situations before.

The only pitcher to make his collegiate debut was freshman Cody Sedlock, who was credited with Saturday’s win after replacing No. 2 starter John Kravetz with two outs in the first inning.

“Pitching should be strong, I believe it should be strong, and it was terrible,” Hartleb said.

In one week, Illinois’ pitching has gone from highly touted to largely unpredictable, but Dickinson encourages his guys to treat last weekend as a “humbling” experience and to recognize that talking about greatness isn’t the same as being great.

“We’re just not good enough to throw the gloves and hats on and win,” Dickinson said. “We’ve got to put the work in to win.

“Three games in, there’s a lot of season to go, and I promise we’ll turn it around.”

J.J. can be reached at [email protected]

and @Wilsonable07.