Illinois baseball set for weekend series with Northwestern

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Illinois’ David Kerian (12) attempts to catch a ball at first base during the baseball game v. SIU at Illinois Field on Saturday, March 14. Illinois won 6-2.

By Joey Figueroa

The rivalry games continue for the Illinois baseball team.

Following a 4-3 victory for Braggin’ Rights over Missouri on Tuesday night, No. 25 Illinois (21-6-1, 2-1) will host Northwestern (8-19, 2-1) for a three-game series in a battle for state supremacy.

The Illini have won 10 of their last 12 meetings with the Wildcats, including a series sweep over them last year, during which Illinois outscored Northwestern 20-2 across three games.

Illinois will aim for a similar offensive output this time around.

“Earlier in the season, our pitching kind of carried us in a lot of games, and every once in a while, our bats kind of woke up,” catcher Jason Goldstein said. “It seems like right now our bats are heating up, and we’re getting a lot of critical, clutch hits.”

The Illini have plated at least eight runs in three of their last five games. They lead the Big Ten in total bases, due in large part to first baseman David Kerian’s seven longballs — Illinois is second in the conference in home runs.

Illinois will have a good chance to gain even more offensive momentum against a struggling Northwestern pitching staff.

The Wildcats’ starting rotation consists of just three arms, none of which have been consistent enough to post an ERA below 4.40. The team allows the third-highest walks and throws the third-most wild pitches in the conference.

Northwestern stumbled into the 2015 season, losing nine of its first 10 games. Only one of those losses was by a margin larger than five, though, and the Wildcats have turned it around with a three-game winning streak heading into this weekend.

Northwestern’s offense is driven by senior utility player Kyle Ruchim, who leads the team in hitting, home runs and RBI. His .351 batting average is good for sixth in the Big Ten.

With the Illini bats swinging well and the starting pitching continuing a strong season, one of the few areas needing improvement is the bullpen.

After struggling against Michigan State, the bullpen played what may have been the most crucial role in Tuesday’s win over Missouri. Relievers Nick Blackburn, J.D. Nielsen, Cody Sedlock and Tyler Jay combined for 3 and 1/3 shutout innings to dispatch the Tigers.

“They came in and buckled down and did what we expected them to do,” Kerian said of the bullpen. “Throw hard and throw strikes and give the defense a chance to help them out and get outs.”

Illinois is ranked in every major national poll and continues to rise up the rankings.

The highest-ranked team in Illinois history was the 1962 club that ended the season ranked No. 11 in the country. Heading into the thick of Big Ten play, head coach Dan Hartleb doesn’t want his team to become complacent and be content with where it is.

“We deserve to be where we’re at, I believe that,” Hartleb said. “But you don’t deserve to stay where you’re at. You have to play and keep yourself in that position and continue to try and climb. I think we’re very capable of that.”

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