Illini baseball set to face familiar foe SIU at home

By Peter Bailey-Wells

Southern Illinois is not in the Big Ten, but is a significant in-state rival for the Illinois baseball team.

The Illini went 2-2 against the Salukis last season and are 10-6 against SIU in the last five seasons. Illinois has not lost that many games to any in-state team over that span — in contrast, the Illini are 12-4 against Northwestern during that time.

SIU comes to Illinois Field for a three-game series starting Friday.

The Illini sit at 12-3-1 after winning their home opener Tuesday 7-3 over Chicago State. Following last weekend’s series at Oklahoma State, Illinois is ranked as high as No. 19 in national polls. The Salukis are 2-13 and have lost 10 of their last 11 games. They have not had a winning season since 2012.

Illinois’ Friday starter will be junior Kevin Duchene, who has notched a win in both of his starts thus far this season. Duchene pitched a 5-1 complete game against SIU last season, carrying a perfect game into the seventh inning.

Duchene said he knows Illinois has a target on its back, especially after last weekend.

“It’s easy to have a letdown series after (beating Oklahoma State),” Duchene said. “We’re the big fish in the pond now, so we have to stay focused.”

Saturday and Sunday’s probable starting pitchers for the Illini are seniors Drasen Johnson and John Kravetz, who have been the team’s workhorses thus far — Kravetz is first on the team in innings pitched (27 1/3) and Johnson is second (27).

Hartleb criticized the Illinois bullpen following the team’s win over Chicago State, but junior Tyler Jay — the team’s top reliever — didn’t pitch Tuesday and is available for work Friday.

“So far, I feel like we’re giving guys innings,” Hartleb said. “I want guys to earn those innings. I want somebody to step up”

Senior infielder and pitcher Reid Roper is also available to pitch Friday — neither he nor Jay have given up a single run all season.

Roper is 11-for-31 at the plate in his career against SIU. Roper, infielder Adam Walton and outfielder Casey Fletcher are the only Illini hitting better than .300 this season — Fletcher was the star for the Illini against the Salukis last year.

In four games against SIU, the senior went 7-for-13 and hit three home runs on April 30. That 10-1 Illini win was the start of what Hartleb called “Casey Fletcher Week,” during which Fletcher batted .476 with five home runs, 12 RBIs and two walk-off hits.

“This is our state,” Fletcher said. “Any time we play an in-state rival, we get a little more pumped up for it.”

[email protected]

@pbaileywells