Illinois baseball heads north to Minnesota for first ranked matchup of season

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Photo courtesy of Andy Wenstrand/Illini Athletics

Left handed pitcher Payton Hutchings throws the ball during a game against Purdue on April 14. The Illini will be on the road for three games this weekend against Notre Dame, West Virginia and Kansas.

By Wes Hollenberg, Staff Writer

Illinois baseball will travel to play No. 12 Notre Dame, West Virginia and Kansas in Minnesota this weekend this Friday, Saturday and Sunday respectively. 

Heading into the weekend, the Illini sit at 2-4 on the season, a massive underachievement for the team’s goals of being well over .500 this season. Last weekend, they went 1-2 in two games against Middle Tennessee and one game against Coastal Carolina. 

“For this weekend, I sent a message out to the team like ‘hey, this is a new week’,” said junior infielder Branden Comia. “It starts today. We have an optional lift to go to. Just reiterating to them we’ve gotta set the tone today for how this week is going to go.”

Staying up mentally will be key as things won’t get much easier this weekend. Notre Dame is easily the most dominant team Illinois has seen so far given their number 12 ranking. The Fighting Irish are 5-1 on the season, averaging nearly 12 runs per game while allowing a microscopic 2.3. Sophomore pitcher Cole Kirschsieper is expected to get the starting nod for the matchup after impressing in Friday starts in his first two appearances. 

All three of Notre Dame’s starting pitchers have ERAs under 2, so it’ll require just about everything from the Illini if they are to be competitive. Offensively, Notre Dame is headlined by four different hitters hitting over .400 including outfielder Ryan Cole and catcher David LaManna both hitting over .500. 

West Virginia will present another tough matchup in their own right on Saturday as the team sits at 6-2. Headlining their offense is freshman infielder JJ Wetherholt, who is hitting .406 in 32 at bats this season. However, they have been vulnerable on the mound, allowing 4.25 runs per game. Saturday’s starter for West Virginia isn’t clear yet, but one name to look out for is Chris Sleeper, who’s pitched nine innings so far and is boasting a 1.00 ERA. 

The Saturday starting pitching has been a big weakness for the Illini so far, as they have allowed 12 and 17 runs on Saturdays in the previous two weekends. It wouldn’t be surprising to see head coach Dan Hartleb try a different look with the starter. 

On Sunday, Illinois will look to get revenge against Kansas, who won two of the three against the Illini in week one. However, the final game was the one the Illini won 7-1, so they may have momentum going in. The Jayhawks are 3-4 so far this season, with Maui Ahuna and Nolan Metcalf leading their offense averaging .429 and .360 respectively. 

As suggested by a middling record, Kansas is a bit split on their pitching numbers. They have three pitchers with ERAs under 2.5, but have a few others over 9.0. Their output this weekend may be largely dependent on who sees the mound.

Despite the tough start, Illinois players aren’t letting their record get to their heads.

“I never really try to look ahead to the teams we play,” Comia said. “In all honesty, I think that’s really our coach’s job as far as scouting and stuff like that. And then they’ll let us know when we get there like ‘hey, this is what we’re going to do. This is our plan of attack.’”

 

@WesHollenberg

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