Illini push through finals ahead of road series against Iowa

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Photo Courtesy of Andy Wenstrand/Fighting Illini Athletics

Left-handed pitcher Nathan Lavender pitches against a batter from Michigan State April 17. The Illinois baseball team travel to Iowa City for a three-game series against the Hawkeyes with three weekends left in the regular season.

By Jared Ebanks, Staff Writer

With just three weekends left in the regular season, the Illini travel to Iowa City for a three-game series against the Hawkeyes. After snapping Maryland’s six-game winning streak, Illinois dropped the final two games of the series, placing them back under .500. 

Iowa (21-14) sits fourth in the conference, while the Illini (16-18) drop one spot in the Big Ten rankings to eighth. 

This week in particular poses an additional level of pressure to perform for the team in the virtual classroom. Amid finals week, baseball can be a release for the student athletes, but head coach Dan Hartleb says the pressure to perform well in exams can be distracting for some players.  

“You can tell leading up to exams, where guys at times are so consumed with trying to do a great job academically, that they’re just not as sharp, mentally, baseball-wise, because, you know, they’re just trying to grind out and do a great job on the academic side,” Hartleb said.

Last weekend’s series marked an unusual outing for the Illini’s bats, scoring the lowest amount of runs (9) in a series this season. The difficulty gets turned up a notch this Friday night as Iowa’s Trenton Wallace – who’s tied for least runs allowed (18) in the conference – will start against the Illini. 

The 6-foot-1 southpaw – who holds the second best ERA in the Big Ten (.283) – has notched the most strikeouts in the conference (80). 

Justin Janas (.361) and Jackson Raper (.317) continue to lead the charge for the Illini offense. Janas has been the gold standard for consistency in the back half of the season, ranking second in the team in on-base percentage (.478), while Raper is driving his runners home – the team’s leader in runs batted in (36).

The Hawkeyes counter the Illini with a heavy-handed assault in both the bullpen and the dugout, ranking second in the conference for most RBIs. Ben Norman is responsible for 22% of those runs alone (46), leading the Big Ten. 

The progression of the bottom half of the Illinois staff continues to linger, producing subpar results in the final outings on Sundays this season. In three pods and seven weekends, the Illini have only won the final game in the series or pod on three occasions: twice in March against Ohio State and Michigan State and in their series sweep of the Boilermakers three weeks ago.

Hartleb says the progress he’s seen out of his starting staff is encouraging, but there’s still room for growth and maturity. 

“Our starting pitchers and a couple guys out of the bullpen, I think they’ve made progress,” Hartleb said. “But there’s a number of guys that I think should have made some more strides, especially from a pitching standpoint. But they haven’t, so we just have to keep working.”

Left-handed pitcher Nathan Lavender has seen some success this season as a Saturday starter for the Illini. The 6-foot-2 junior has moved into a mentorship role this season with a young Illini bullpen, pushing the inexperienced pitchers to trust who they are and their abilities. 

“Where a lot of guys go wrong is they take what they’re working on in the week and they bring it out on the game mound with them,” Lavender said. “In-game experience is not the time to work on different things you want to work on. When you’re in the game, you don’t worry about anything else except getting the guy in the left-handed batter’s box or right-handed batter’s box out. And that is the sole purpose.” 

The Illini will start their typical rotation: Andrew Hoffman on Friday, followed by Nate Lavender and Riley Gowens. 

Hoffman was lights out last weekend in the team’s first matchup with the Terrapins, earning his fifth win of the season while striking out a career-high 12 batters. After starting in the first four series of the season, Cole Kirschsieper has become one of the team’s best weapons out of the bullpen in relief, currently riding a 13-inning scoreless streak. 

Saturday’s contest will see Lavender take the bump for the Illini. In terms of pure experience, this is only Lavender’s sophomore season for the Illini. His freshman year garnered 17 appearances; an injury in 2020 then sidelined Lavender for the COVID-shortened season.

Limited experience yielded up-and-down results as Lavender found his groove, but his focus this weekend is to be as efficient as possible in the first few innings to provide layover for a possible seven to eight inning appearance. 

“Some of my past starts I’ve gotten into a good habit of going five, six innings and running into just a little bit of trouble there at the end,” Lavender said. As you go as a pitcher, you’re not going to have the same stuff you had in the first inning in the sixth inning, so you have to find crafty ways to get guys out.”

The Illini will face off against the Hawkeyes at 6:05 p.m. Friday night, followed by game two at 2:05 p.m. Saturday and the final game of the series at 1:05 p.m. on Sunday.

 

@JaredEbanks

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