Illinois baseball looks to bounce back in Florida

By Nicholas Fortin

The last time the Illinois baseball team played a game in Gainesville, Fla., most of the current Illini were in grade school.

Illinois last played Florida in 1998 when current head coach Dan Hartleb was just an assistant. The Illini (2-4) will travel back to Florida for the first time in 16 years to play a four-game weekend against No. 23 Florida (5-3) and Florida Gulf Coast (5-3).

Hartleb said he isn’t focusing on the last time his team played in Florida, when the Illini were two outs away from making the College World Series, but instead will be focusing on helping the team improve offensively.

“It was not a good offensive weekend,” Hartleb said of last weekend’s offensive performance. “We need to make the same strides offensively from week two to week three that we made pitching wise from week one to week two.”

Junior infielder David Kerian echoed Hartleb in saying the offense went away from the things it worked on in practice during last weekend’s series and that the team tried to do too much with the ball. Kerian added that the Illini will need to let each pitch dictate where the team will hit the ball in order to have success against the Gators and Eagles.

“From a hitting standpoint we didn’t have the same approach we did the first weekend, so this week of practice is really going to have to focus on that,” Kerian said. “With Florida being a top-20 team and Florida Gulf Coast being a great team we’re going to have to step our game up and score some runs.”

Illinois will also look to continue to improve its pitching this weekend. The Illini, who gave up 28 runs in their first series of the season, were able to cut down on the runs allowed in last weekend’s series allowing only 11. Junior pitcher John Kravetz said Illinois’ pitchers have already made major improvements this season but that the team still can continue to improve on the mound.

“(We can be ) throwing more strikes. Working down in the zone,” Kravetz said. “We’ve been falling behind a lot the past two weekends and leaving pitches up and stuff. … When you see the guys’ stuff that we have on the staff, that probably shouldn’t be the case.”

The Illini will open the weekend with a doubleheader Friday night against Florida Gulf Coast and Florida, respectively, before playing Florida again Saturday and Florida Gulf Coast to end the weekend Sunday.

With Illinois playing an extra game this weekend, sophomore Ryan Castellanos will make his season debut against Florida Gulf Coast on Friday. From there the Illini starting pitchers will stay the same as sophomore Kevin Duchene, Kravetz and junior Drasen Johnson will round out the starting rotation.

While Hartleb said he hadn’t done a lot of scouting on the two teams as of Monday afternoon, he did say that both squads are very good from top to bottom.

“They’re two very good programs,” Hartleb said. “We knew when we scheduled it that it would be a dogfight, but I think those are teams we ought to be able to compete with, so I’m looking forward to the weekend.”

While scoring runs and keeping opposing offenses in check will be keys to walking away from Florida victorious, Kravetz said the team can still improve in “all areas.”

“The pitching can step it up,” Kravetz said. “Hitting, we kind of had a down weekend this past weekend. I think we have the talent to do it. We’re capable of having a big weekend this weekend, we just have to make it happen.”

Nicholas can be reached at [email protected] and @IlliniSportsGuy.