Illinois baseball goes 1-2 in Big Ten/Big East Challenge

For the second straight year, the Illinois baseball team went 1-2 in the Big Ten/Big East Challenge. It opened the season with losses to Notre Dame and No. 25 Louisville before getting its first win, against St. John’s, on Sunday.

Illinois is now 5-7 all-time in the four-year history of the challenge, but the Illini did not think the competition in the Big East is much better than what they face in the Big Ten.

“No, not at all. We’ve competed in every single game,” left fielder Justin Parr said. “I don’t feel in any way that they’re a better conference or have better teams than us.”

The Illini lost a high-scoring game against the Irish on Friday, 13-12. Louisville rode dominant starting pitching to defeat the Illini 4-3 on Saturday. On Sunday, after trouble in the first inning by starter Nick Chmielewski, the Illini got 6 2/3 scoreless innings from freshman John Kravetz in his first career appearance. Kravetz got the win in the Illini’s 9-4 victory over St. John’s.

“At one time or another we pitched well, and one time or another we hit well,” head coach Dan Hartleb said of the weekend. “It was good to get a win today, but now we need to get in a situation where we’re winning series instead of games.”

If Illinois is going to be successful this year, it will need to count on a roster with fewer than half its players having played Division I baseball, making the experience gained over the weekend valuable.

“I think it was important for all the guys that have never played the game before and went out and played,” Hartleb said. “I was really pleased with the young guys and just thought they handled things well.”

In his first career plate appearance, redshirt freshman second baseman Reid Roper knocked a double off the center field wall.

“Yeah, I was a little nervous,” Roper said. “It was my first time playing Division I baseball so there was a little jitters, but once you got into the game it went away. It was pretty nice to kind of get that monkey off my back in my first at-bat.”

He stayed hot all weekend at the plate, going 4-for-10 with a three-run home run in Friday’s game and a team-leading .571 OBP. On Sunday, he took the mound to seal the Illini’s 9-4 victory with a perfect ninth.

Pitching will be the focus for the Illini as they prepare in practice this week. No Illini starter made it out of the sixth inning all weekend, and Hartleb wasn’t happy with the lack of strikes.

“In our situation, we put too many guys on base with walks and hitting guys,” Hartleb said. “When you do that, you’ll have a tendency to give up runs.

“But overall, we made a lot of progress. We’re definitely a better team than we left on Thursday.”