Illinois returns home to play Maryland after seven games on road

Senior+Jackson+Raper+high+fives+Tom+Jurack+after+coming+off+the+field+during+the+game+against+Purdue+April+18.+The+Illinois+baseball+team+is+set+to+play+at+Illinois+Field+against+Maryland+this+weekend+after+seven+away+games.

Cameron Krasucki

Senior Jackson Raper high fives Tom Jurack after coming off the field during the game against Purdue April 18. The Illinois baseball team is set to play at Illinois Field against Maryland this weekend after seven away games.

By Gabby Hajduk, Staff Writer

After several losing weekends, the Illinois baseball team has turned the corner recently, sweeping Purdue two weekends ago and splitting a four-game series with No. 22 Michigan last weekend. The Illini are back at home now to host Maryland for a three-game series after seven straight games on the road. 

While the Illini have been strong, the Terrapins have been unstoppable and will come to Champaign this weekend on a six-game winning streak, most recently sweeping Minnesota and Northwestern. 

Maryland (19-13) currently sits fifth in the conference, while Illinois is three games out of seventh with a 15-16 record. Despite the slow start, third baseman Jackson Raper believes the success last weekend in Ann Arbor has sparked an extra sense of confidence.

“They’re a really great team recognized nationally,” Raper said of Michigan. “We feel like we have the talent and the team to go out and win and compete with any team we come against. It was good to get two wins there. We obviously would’ve liked to get more. But we’ve been playing better as of late, and that just gives us some more confidence going into the weekend.”

Illinois’ pitching staff has helped instill the new wave of confidence. After struggling the first half of the season, both the starters and bullpen have made strides. Andrew Hoffman, Nathan Lavender and Riley Gowens have found roles as consistent starters and will all start on the mound against Maryland. 

Hoffman and Lavender have pitched the most innings for the Illini the season, both sitting at 36.1. Lavender, who has been in both starting and relief roles, leads the team in strikeouts with 50 and ranks second in the Big Ten with five wins. However, Hoffman has been one of the most consistent guys in the conference, ranking eighth in opposing batting average (.217), fifth in runs allowed (19), fifth in walks allowed (10) and ninth in home runs allowed (3).

Cole Kirschsieper and Ryan O’Hara have led the bullpen this season with three wins each. Kirschsieper, who began the season in a starting role, secured both wins against the Wolverines last weekend and has not allowed a run through his last 11.2 innings. The streak goes back five games.

With the pitching staff finally taking a leap and the offense — which leads the conference with a .286 batting average — continuing to make strides each week, assistant coach Adam Christ believes his team is trending upward at the right time.

“If you look at us here in the last couple weeks, we’ve been playing better,” Christ said. “In terms of just staying in games and just continuing over the course of the game, too. It’s not like we score runs early and fade off late. We continue to grind out at-bats. We’re getting some guys coming out of the bullpen throwing strikes. If you look at the last couple weeks, the stock trend would be up for us.”

Both the Illini offense and defense will be challenged against the Terrapins. Maryland boasts the conference’s most frequent home run hitter, Benjamin Cowles, who also leads the Big Ten with a .727 slugging percentage. 

Pitchers Sean Burke and Nick Dean also have been consistent forces for the Terrapins. Burke ranks fourth in the conference in opposing batting average and has recorded the second-most strikeouts (74). Dean ranks third in hits allowed and runs allowed with 28 and 17, respectively. 

While Maryland brings a well-balanced attack to Champaign, the Illini have looked ready to counter that. Despite the slow start, Raper believes he and the Illini have found their groove. 

“Every weekend we want to go for the sweep and, at this point in the season, get as many wins as we can,” Raper said. “We’re definitely looking to just stack as many wins as we can and get over that .500 mark. It has felt like we’ve been sitting there the whole season. We felt like we had some games early on that we could’ve won, should’ve won. We’ve just got to move past that and keep stacking wins as we can here going toward the end of the season.”

 

@gabby_h11

[email protected]