Illinois travels to Ann Arbor to take on Michigan, Michigan State

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Photo Courtesy of Fighting Illini Athletics

Ty Rybarczyk pitches during a game on a sunny day. The Fighting Illini will take on the University of Michigan Wolverines and the Michigan State Spartans this weekend.

By Jared Ebanks, Staff Writer

For the first time this season, the Illini will play two Big Ten opponents in its pod this weekend in Ann Arbor. The Illini will play Michigan on Friday at 3 p.m and Saturday at 11 a.m. before matching up with the Spartans Saturday afternoon at 3 p.m. and Sunday at 11 a.m.

The Wolverines, who were tabbed the Big Ten favorite this season, rank 22nd in the country after sweeping a four-game series against Purdue in Greenville, South Carolina, last weekend. 

Practicing with a purpose was at the forefront of head coach Dan Hartleb’s mind before their trip to Ann Arbor, as the Illini had a week of practices filled with small, mistimed mistakes that yielded a 1-3 weekend against Ohio State to open the season.

“I always talk to the guys about going to practice to get better, not going to practice to get it over with, and there’s a huge difference,” Hartleb said. “I thought last week we went to practice to get better, and I thought we played better last week.”

Facing two different opponents this weekend doesn’t change anything for Hartleb and his staff. The Illini’s first matchup with the Spartans Saturday afternoon will pit the Illini’s third starter, Ty Rybarczyk, in the bullpen against their ace. 

“We can start trying to juggle and guess and outguess, but we just have to go in and try and win each and every game one at a time,” Hartleb said. “It’s going to be a grind and a battle regardless of who you play.”

The fairly young Illinois bullpen will start its right-handers on Friday with Andrew Hoffman, the only pitcher honored on the preseason list, followed by Riley Gowens and Rybarczyk. Hoffman holds a 1.42 ERA on the season with 17 strikeouts while only allowing seven hits. 

Rybarczyk will start the back half of the pod against Michigan State Saturday afternoon after grabbing his first collegiate win against Minnesota last weekend. 

“It was for sure great to be out there. I missed being out there and competing,” Rybarczyk said. “I had a few couple innings in the summer, but it was great to get out there with the Illini again.”

The Illini staff will have their hands full with the Michigan batters, who have enjoyed a .406 on-base percentage this season and boast over seven players batting over .400. 

After reading that a scout described him as a “pint-sized righty,” Rybarczyk has used the sly comment to focus on getting stuff out of his bullpen faster and more concisely. 

“I’ve had that my whole life; people overlook me. People do this and that, but it just adds more fuel to the fire,” Rybarczyk said.

On the offensive side, sophomore Justin Janas (.400) and free-swinger Ryan Hampe (.367) will feature at the top of the lineup. The Illini will hope to see a stronger outing from veteran junior Cam McDonald, as Michigan State will start Saturday with right-handed pitcher Adam Berghorst, who has allowed four hits in 8.2 innings.

While facing two highly disciplined teams, Hartleb says his staff’s depth and abundance of role players will bode well for the weekend.

“I’ve enjoyed coaching this team a lot because we do have a number of players that we’ve been able to insert in tight situations, be able to flip lineups, make changes and do matchups,” Hartleb said.  “You don’t have that each and every year, and so that makes this team unique.”

@JaredEbanks

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