Illinois offense key in pitching, total success on weekend

By Nicholas Fortin

When sophomore pitcher Kevin Duchene took to Twitter on Feb. 21 after the Illinois baseball team dropped its second straight game and fell to 1-3 overall on the year, what he said about the team’s potential seemed farfetched.

“Mark my words,” Duchene wrote. “When this clicks it will be special just need to put it all together.”

Duchene quoted his previous tweet on March 2 after the Illini had won their fourth game in a row and second against then No. 23 Florida on the weekend. Illinois had “put it all together” on both sides of the ball.

The Illini were able to score early and allow their pitchers to go to work with a lead, which has been a rarity so far in the season, but an important part of winning games, sophomore pitcher John Kravetz said.

“All four games we had an early lead, and obviously that just makes it a lot easier to pitch,” junior pitcher Kravetz said. “The offense was awesome this weekend. If they do that every weekend, we’ll be in pretty good shape.”

The Illini pitching staff was able to ride the momentum created by the offense to a near-perfect series in Florida. Illinois went on to sweep the four-game weekend, winning twice against Florida and Florida Gulf Coast.

Illinois is now 4-2 on the season when it scores first. It has also allowed one fewer run to its opponents in games where it scores first.

The Illini scored early and often, tallying 23 runs on the weekend while giving up just four. Illinois was able to score first in three of its four games, and in the other game the Illini scored six of their nine runs in the second and third innings to gain a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.

The offense was efficient, as the Illini compiled 42 hits to only 24 strikeouts over the weekend.

Left fielder Ryan Nagle led the charge offensively, going 10-for-16 on the weekend with four runs and three RBIs to earn a Big Ten Co-Player of the Week award for his contribution.

“I think it’s human nature, you always want to get the one-up on somebody,” associate head coach Eric Snider said. “The whole thing is we just took advantage of situations. We took advantage of every mistake that Florida Gulf Coast and Florida made.”

Illinois’ early offensive output last weekend contrasted its play in the previous two series. The Illini scored first in three of their first six games and were often playing from behind.

By allowing the pitchers to work with a lead, pitching coach Drew Dickinson said the Illinois offense was able to ease the pressure on its pitching staff, allowing the pitchers to perform at a higher level.

“It’s always easier to pitch with a lead,” Dickinson said, echoing Kravetz. “You’re a little more free and easy, and when you’re free and easy, you locate better and execute your pitches at a higher level.”

The Illini pitchers took full advantage of their opportunities, and the team was able to hold the Gators and Eagles to 23 hits on the weekend. Duchene threw a complete game shutout against Florida while the three other starters also earned wins. In addition, the Illini pitching staff finished the weekend with a 1.00 ERA.

Although the weekend success helped boost the Illini’s confidence, Duchene said the Illini will continue to work on getting their individual jobs done every week and that the team won’t hang its hat on this weekend’s well rounded, undefeated performance.

“(Head coach Dan Hartleb) said we just have to continue to get better in practice, which every team has to do,” Duchene said. “Championships aren’t won in February, so we got a long season ahead of us and that’s what we’re focused on.”

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