Illinois to start 2021 season with four-game series against Ohio State

Sophomore+Branden+Comia+prepares+to+swing+during+practice+on+Feb.+26.+The+Illinois+baseball+team+will+face+Ohio+State+this+weekend.

Ryan Ash

Sophomore Branden Comia prepares to swing during practice on Feb. 26. The Illinois baseball team will face Ohio State this weekend.

By Gabby Hajduk, Sports Editor

Opening up its season in Greenville, South Carolina, the Illinois baseball team will take the field on Friday for the first time since March 8. Before playing any Big Ten opponents, the 2020 season was canceled, but this season the Illini will face conference-only opponents in a 44-game season. 

A four-game series against Ohio State will consume Illinois’ opening weekend. The Buckeyes finished last season at 6-8, while the Illini held an 8-5 record. But in the Big Ten preseason poll released Thursday, Ohio State was ranked No. 3 and Illinois was No. 6. 

“This is game one for us. We’re only going to play Big Ten; this is our season,” said head coach Dan Hartleb. “We need to approach every game as a single game. I talk to our guys all the time about showing up and playing the same way every day and, hopefully, it’s at a high level. But, it can’t be a rollercoaster ride. You have to be aggressive, you have to have a certain mentality but you also have to play with a calm. We’ll approach every game the same.”

Both teams have veteran-dominated lineups, but their experience lies on opposite sides of the ball. The Illini graduated their two top pitchers in Ty Weber and Garrett Acton while the Buckeyes return all three weekend starters from 2019 and 2020 —  juniors Garrett Burhenn and Seth Lonsway and senior Griffan Smith.

While Burhenn and Lonsway — who were both named to the Big Ten preseason honors list — will start Friday and Saturday, respectively, Smith will come out of the bullpen to start the season. Ohio State’s two new starters are juniors Jack Neely and Will Pfennig, and the team’s top reliever looks like TJ Brock, who was also named to the preseason honors list. 

Illinois’ bullpen, on the other hand, is a group of older guys, but they have little pitching experience for the Illini. The team’s Friday night starter is Andrew Hoffman, a right-handed transfer from John A. Logan, who was Illinois’ only pitcher honored on the preseason list. 

“Andrew’s extremely competitive; I think he’s very composed. He’s proven,” Hartleb said. “He was proven as a freshman in college, did a great job at Logan in the short season they had last year. Then he went out and did it again this summer, and he’s continued to improve and make adjustments throughout our fall and winter.”

Juniors Riley Gowens and Ty Rybarczyk and sophomore Cole Kirschsieper will follow Hoffman this weekend. Gowens has yet to throw a pitch for the Illini, as he missed his first two seasons with an injury. Rybarczyk made four appearances on two starts last season, finishing with a 4.41 ERA. Kirschsieper also made four appearances on two starts but finished with a 1.35 ERA, leading the underclassmen pitchers. 

“We’ve got a lot of older guys that have experience at a high level,” Hartleb said. “If you look at the pitching staff, we don’t have as much experience, (and) we’re fairly young. I think we’re really talented on the mound and especially as we get innings under our belt and pitch totals continue to use as we move through the year. I think you’ll see a lot of really, really good things come out of the pitching staff. We’re an older club that’s young.”

As for the offensive side, the Illini return 86% of last season’s hits and 83% of the team’s runs scored. The team’s top hitters — Branden Comia, Danny Doligale and Taylor Jackson — will most likely be featured at the top of the lineup again. Comia and Jackson were the only other Illini to be selected for the conference preseason honors. 

Batting leadoff last season, Jackson will continue to fill that role, at least to start the season, according to Hartleb who values speed and power at the top of his lineup. Expectations will also be high for Comia, who led the way last season, hitting .426 with a team-high 20 hits, 10 RBIs and two home runs.

No matter what comes out of the opening weekend, Hartleb knows experimentation and adjustments will be made for the next 40 games. But for now, the Illinois head coach just can’t wait to see what his team is made of. 

“It’s been nice that we’ve been outside since last Wednesday,” Hartleb said. “So from a preparation standpoint, being able to get out on the field we scrimmaged for days in a row. I think that helps us from a mental standpoint. … This group has worked extremely hard. I like the mentality we have. It’s been fun to go to practice every day. It’s absolutely awesome, basically one year later, to get back out on the field and have an opportunity to compete.”

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