Illinois baseball’s pitching staff leads team through 5-game winning streak

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  • Ryan Castellanos (20) pitches during the game against Penn State on May 11, 2013. The Illini won 8-6.

For Ryan Castellanos, it’s easy to see why the Illinois baseball team keeps on winning. 

“I feel the recipe for success in baseball is to have a good staff with an opportunistic offense,” the pitcher said. “If you look at UCLA last year, they had one of the best staffs in the nation and they had a nice opportunistic offense. I feel that we resemble that this year.”

The Bruins rode their pitching staff to a national championship a year ago. The Illini are in the midst of a five-game winning streak, their longest of the season. To Castellanos, the team’s success starts with the pitching staff.

“I feel we got a pretty good staff from the starting rotation all the way to the bullpen,” Castellanos said. “We’ve got arms out of the pen that can come in and shut it down, and we’ve got starters who go in and go as deep as they want to.”

It’s hard to disagree with him. After starting the season 2-4 and giving up 28 runs over the first three games of the year, the team has settled down and the pitching staff has started to take over. So far this season, the Illini are 12-2 in games in which their opponents score three runs or fewer.

Illinois has given up just seven runs in its last five games, shutting out Northwestern twice in the process. 

Over the five games, the Illini have had strong outings from each of their four starters. Castellanos threw a complete game, junior Drasen Johnson threw a 10-strikeout and seven-inning shutout, and John Kravetz threw an eight-inning shutout. 

As associate head coach Eric Snider put it, “Our pitching has just been outstanding.” 

All of Illinois’ starters have been able to have success so far this season.

Both Kravetz and sophomore starter Kevin Duchene have won Big Ten Pitcher of the Week for their performances, with Kravetz picking it up this week after shutting out Northwestern and recording 10 strikeouts on Sunday.

After not giving up a walk in his seven-inning outing on Saturday, Castellanos extended his streak of innings without a walk to 34. Castellanos leads the NCAA in innings thrown without a walk so far this season.

The Illini pitchers’ success has placed them toward the top on a number of Big Ten statistical categories. Johnson is second in the Big Ten with 41 strikeouts on the season and sophomore reliever Jay is seventh with three saves.

“They’re throwing quality pitches,” Snider said. “Each individual starter keeps coming out and they put up zeros and it’s just great to see that confidence in an 18-, 19-, 20-year-old college kid.”

Illinois’ pitching staff has been able to excel in the past three weeks, even without Duchene, who is usually the team’s No. 1 starter. Duchene, who was last year’s Big Ten Freshman of the Year pitcher, has been out since late March with what the team is calling “forearm tightness.”

When asked about just how well the team has been pitching in Duchene’s absence, Snider said that it’s “scary” to think about the fact that the Illini have a deep enough pitching staff to have been so successful without him.

With a three-game series against Michigan looming this weekend, the Illini know that they will need to continue to pitch well in order to keep the winning streak going. Snider said the Illini have been successful at being able to “come out and pound the zone,” and that pitching prowess, along with an opportunistic offense has made the difference for the Illini so far this season. 

“It’s been really fun to watch and it puts us in a position to win ball games,” Snider said.

Nicholas can be reached at [email protected] and @IlliniSportsGuy.