Illini baseball to face Gonzaga, Lamar in four-game weekend

This weekend’s four-game trip to Beaumont, Texas will give the Illini baseball team an early feel for the Big Ten season.

Illinois will play a two-game series against Gonzaga on Friday and Saturday. Illinois will also face Lamar twice — first in the second game of Saturday’s doubleheader and again Sunday to wrap up the weekend. Head coach Dan Hartleb designed the schedule that way to see if his team could make adjustments when playing the same team in back-to-back games. The Big Ten schedule will feature three-game weekend series.

“We’re looking at it basically as a four-game series, even though you play two different teams,” Hartleb said. “The reason we scheduled four-game series is to try to increase our depth and get some guys some experience, yet at the same time we’re going out to win each and every game.”

Testing Illinois’ depth means putting some of the inexperienced players in the game in what could be key situations, an idea Hartleb welcomes.

Hartleb says he won’t change much from last weekend. Kevin Johnson will make the start Friday while Rob McDonnell and Nick Chmielewski take the ball in Saturday’s games. Johnson didn’t make it out of the third inning last Friday in a rainy game, and Chmielewski only retired one hitter before being pulled in his start.

“I think it’s important for guys to understand it’s not a one-and-done situation,” Hartleb said. “We did have a couple guys that struggled, but they need to go back on the mound and be in a situation where they’re productive for us.”

As for Sunday, the Illini don’t have a starter named and won’t determine one until Hartleb sees what arms he has left after the first three games.

Offensively, there won’t be any major lineup changes for an Illini team that averaged eight runs a game in the Big Ten/Big East Challenge. Third baseman Brandon Hohl said the players even impressed themselves at the plate last weekend.

“We’re going to be a really good hitting team, and we want to incorporate some of the small-ball game,” Hohl said. “We know we can run. We want to get more of that into it as well. At the plate we just feel really confident.”

Last week, Gonzaga swept a three-game series against Nebraska. The Bulldogs will likely throw two lefties against Illinois. The Illini admitted to not knowing much about either of their opponents this weekend. It doesn’t bother Hartleb, though; besides a few scouting reports and knowing from which hand the starting pitcher delivers the ball, Hartleb is more concerned with making teams beat the Illini.

“We don’t really worry about what other teams do,” Hartleb said. “Everybody we play here in the early season is very, very good.”

“We’ve got our work cut out for us from the standpoint that you can’t slip,” he added. “You have to go out and play solid games.”