Illini baseball opens season with even split in North Carolina


The Daily Illini file photo

Illinois shortstop Branden Comia (20) snags a ground ball during the game against Maryland in the Big Ten Tournament at TD Ameritrade Park on, May 22, 2019. The Illini lost 6-2.

By Rich Eberwein, Staff Writer

Illinois opened their 141st baseball season on Friday afternoon in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, when they edged out the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Panthers, 3-2, to win their fourth-straight season opener.

Strong pitching from both teams brought the game down to the last pitch on Friday, as three runs were just enough to get the win for senior Ty Weber, who threw six innings and struck out just as many while surrendering a run on an RBI single in the third.

Senior Ryan Schmitt came out of the bullpen in relief to toss two innings and gave up the Panthers’ second run after an RBI double play following a triple. Senior Garrett Acton, who is coming off a stellar season where he broke the Big Ten single-season saves record (19), pitched the final inning and set down three of the four men he faced.

Offensively, the Illini struck first in the second, when junior transfer outfielder Nathan Aide took Panthers pitcher Jack Mahoney deep for a two-run shot in his first at-bat as an Illini. The third run came in the form of a double off the bat of junior utilityman Alex Steinbach, who led the team in home runs (10), RBIs (50), batting average (.343) and slugging percentage (.686) last season.

“It’s a solid opening-night win,” said head coach Dan Hartleb. “Very good composure up and down the lineup and very good composure on the mound. A good team win.”

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The success was short-lived, however, when Illinois got pummeled at the hands of the Seton Hall Pirates to the tune of a 10-2 final score. Sophomore Ty Rybarczyk started the game and held an Illinois lead for five innings and gave up just two infield singles and one walk while setting down five via strikeout.

“I thought Ty Rybarczyk did a great job,” Hartleb said. “He was the highlight of the day. He pounded the bottom of the zone.”

The big blow of the game came in the top of the eighth when sophomore reliever Ryan Kutt, who missed last season while he was recovering from Tommy John surgery, was a strike away from escaping a bases-loaded jam when Pirate third baseman Connor Hood delivered a gut-wrenching three-run double to center field.  A home run followed and Kutt ended the day with six earned runs charged to him. The Pirates kept the lead the rest of the game and tacked on four more insurance runs in the ninth.

The Illinois runs were scored on an RBI groundout from sophomore catcher Kellen Sarver in the first and a run-scoring single by freshman Brody Harding in the second.

The Illini return to action on Sunday when they take on the Wake Forest Demon Deacons at 2 p.m.

Hartleb looks to return the Big Ten championship to Illinois after a third-place finish in the division and 36 wins last season. The Illini have four NCAA tournament appearances and two Big Ten championships in 2011 and 2015 since Hartleb took the reins in 2006.


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