Pitching powers Illini baseball to perfect opening weekend

By Peter Bailey-Wells

Strong pitching was much talked about during the Illinois baseball team’s offseason, and strong pitching was the reason the Illini emerged unscathed from their opening weekend of play.

Illinois (4-0) took down New Mexico State (0-4) and Lamar (2-2) in the Lamar Cardinal Classic over the weekend in Beaumont, Texas.

The Aggies presented a much tougher opponent for the Illini, forcing two late-game surges from Illinois to secure wins on Friday and Saturday. It took 10 innings Friday night, but the Illini came back from a 1-0 deficit in the top of the ninth inning to win their season opener 5-1.

Illinois scattered 13 hits across the 10 innings, highlighted by senior David Kerian, who recorded three hits, scored the tying run in the ninth and knocked in the go-ahead run in the top of the 10th.

“In the dugout, our attitude was the same the whole game,” Kerian said. “We were hitting the ball hard all game, and we finally just found the holes in those later innings. We knew we were making good contact.”

Sophomore reliever Cody Sedlock got the win for Illinois, striking out two over 2 1/3 innings of work.

One constant for Illinois over the weekend was the starting rotation, which lived up to high preseason expectations. Game one starter senior Drasen Johnson gave up only two hits in 6 1/3 innings, but didn’t get a decision.

Game two starter senior Rob McDonnell fanned a career-high 10 batters, but like Johnson, picked up a no-decision after the Illini fell behind 2-1 in the eighth.

Sophomore Ryne Roper was the hero for the Illini on Saturday morning, driving in two runs on three hits, including a go-ahead two-run single in the bottom of the ninth. Preseason All-American Tyler Jay picked up his first save of the season, and the Illini won 4-2 to complete their two-game sweep of the Aggies.

But of all the strong pitching performances for Illinois, senior John Kravetz might have turned in the best. Kravetz threw seven innings of no-hit ball Saturday afternoon against Lamar, finally exiting in the eighth with the Illini up 3-1.

“It’s unbelievable, but they’re capable of throwing this well every weekend,” Jay said of the starting rotation. “All of those guys can bring it, and hopefully they keep up the intensity.”

The Illini added five more runs in the ninth, capped by home runs from catcher Jason Goldstein and outfielder Pat McInerney. Reid Roper picked up three RBIs and three hits as the Illini finished the Cardinals off 8-1.

Sunday’s starter was a bit of a surprise for the Illini, but he didn’t disappoint. In his first career start, Jay picked up the win, throwing five scoreless innings, striking out five and giving up only two hits. Illinois cruised out to a 9-1 lead and gave up a pair of runs in the ninth before completing the perfect weekend with a 9-3 win.

The Illini’s 4-0 record is the team’s best start in Hartleb’s 10-year tenure at Illinois. Through four games last season, the Illini were 1-3. The pitching staff recorded a 1.46 ERA through the first four games, and the Illini starters surrendered just eight hits and three walks.

Last season, the team had a collective 3.25 ERA, the lowest in Illinois history.

“Last year, we thought we had the same type of pitching staff and the group went out the first weekend and didn’t perform up to expectations,” Hartleb said Saturday. “This year, they’ve come in with maturity and they’ve been the story of the weekend.”

Peter can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @PBaileyWells.