Kevin Duchene close to returning for Illinois baseball

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  • Kevin Duchene pitches against Purdue on April 13, 2013. Duchene is heading into his junior season pitching for Illinois.

  • Illinois’ Adam Walton watches the ball go by while batting during an Illini win against Michigan on April 11th. 

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By J.J. Wilson

For the first time in seven weeks, the chance of No. 1 starter Kevin Duchene returning to the lineup is bright.

Duchene was ruled out with forearm tightness following the game against Southern Illinois on March 14 and has since missed six weeks of play.

“The throwing (rehab) program is going well. We’re right on schedule,” Duchene said. “Everything feels great, and I’m looking forward to getting back on the mound here, hopefully sometime soon.”

In his last start, Duchene threw his second complete game of the season against the Salukis, allowing just four hits in the Illini’s 5-1 victory.

Before being ruled out, he led the Illinois pitching staff with a 1.70 ERA, surrendering seven runs, all earned, in 37 innings.

Duchene’s injury, however, presented an opportunity for Illinois to show the strength of its pitching staff.

Since the Southern Illinois series, the Illini have amassed a 16-8 record in the 24 games since Duchene’s injury, including four shutouts and two Big Ten series sweeps.

Sophomore Ryan Castellanos joined junior starters Drasen Johnson and John Kravetz to complete the main pitching rotation in Duchene’s absence.

At one point, Castellanos was ranked as high as No. 1 in the nation for walks allowed per nine innings with just one in 40 2/3 innings before allowing three on Sunday.

And even though Duchene’s return might mean a shift in Castellanos’ pitching role, perhaps moving to midweek starter or reliever, he couldn’t be happier to have his teammate rejoin the rotation.

“This team needs Kevin back,” Castellanos said. “If he’s ready, that spot’s his, and he deserves it.”

Early season struggles return for Walton

Shortstop Adam Walton began this season 0-for-20 at the plate before going on a career-high 18-game hitting streak, the longest by an Illini this season.

His streak also matched Thomas Lindauer’s 18-game streak last year, which was bested only by Justin Parr’s school record of 33 games.

Since Walton’s streak was snapped in Wednesday’s game against Missouri, he has been hitless in 16 at-bats.

“I’m still hitting the ball hard,” Walton said. “I still feel relaxed. Unfortunately, (my hits) just aren’t falling right now.”

After batting primarily ninth in the order, Walton moved to No. 2 behind Will Krug against Illinois State on April 15, when he has batted for the past eight games.

But while his production has dropped in his past four games, his first four provide little room for doubting his ability — he batted 7-for-20 with three runs, five RBIs and three stolen bases.

“The hitting streak snapped, but nothing has really changed for me,” he said.

Hartleb climbs all-time win list

While Dan Hartleb is more focused on each game as it comes for Illinois, his win total as head coach continues to climb the school ranks.

In his ninth year, Hartleb has garnered a 267-216 all-time record, which ranks fifth in school history.

With one more win, he will tie for fourth with Tom Dedin, who coached the Illini to 268-234-6 between 1979-87. 

Hartleb doesn’t put much in his personal statistics, but he can’t avoid the fact that his team’s 9-3 start to the Big Ten was his best as head coach.

“It’s nice to be up toward the top,” Hartleb said. “That’s why we practice, play and recruit, and guys work up and get up early in the offense.”

After losing two of three to Indiana last weekend, Illinois currently sits at 10-5 in Big Ten play, with three more conference series left — home against Michigan State and away at Iowa and at Nebraska.

J.J. can be reached at [email protected] and @Wilsonable07.