Hot bats, return of Duchene prime Illini baseball for Chanticleer Classic

By Peter Bailey-Wells

The season is already two weeks old, but this weekend will be the first time that junior Kevin Duchene will pitch for the Illinois baseball team.

He couldn’t have returned at a better time — the Illini’s five-game tournament is the most games the team will play on any road trip this season.

The Illini travel to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, Thursday for the Chanticleer Classic. Illinois will face Ball State on Friday and Saturday, Kent State and West Virginia in a doubleheader on Sunday and Coastal Carolina in Conway, South Carolina, on Monday.

Senior center fielder Will Krug said practice this week hasn’t changed just because of the longer weekend.

“It’ll be a little more difficult test this weekend to see where our pitching is and where our bodies are,” Krug said. “But what we do this week won’t make or break us over the weekend.”

Illinois’ pitching staff will get a boost this weekend with the return of Duchene, who was expected to be the team’s ace heading into the season. However, he didn’t travel to Texas or Florida. According to head coach Dan Hartleb, Duchene wasn’t “doing the right things” off the field. Hartleb has not yet announced which day Duchene, who led the Big Ten with a 1.80 ERA last season, will pitch.

In Duchene’s absence, four different starting pitchers threw for the Illini in seven games — the 1.97 team ERA leads the Big Ten.

Not only has its pitching been strong, but Illinois’ offense has been productive over the first seven games. The Illini have more hits (86) than any other team in the Big Ten — 21 more than second-best Michigan — but only three of them have been home runs.

Krug bats at the top of the lineup and talked about how the team approaches hitting the long ball.

“For guys who incorporate that as a part of their game, then absolutely having a break-through weekend would be big,” Krug said. “For me personally, it’s not part of my game.”

So far, though, the lack of a long ball hasn’t bothered Hartleb. After both weekends, he said he was happy with how hard his team was hitting the ball, even though sometimes they hit them right at opposing fielders.

Senior first baseman David Kerian said that early in the season when the Illini weren’t putting up as many runs — 17 runs through the first three games as opposed to 24 this past weekend — they were still confident in their swings.

He echoed Hartleb’s sentiment about hard-hit outs and added that hitting the ball hard every time is more important to the team’s mindset than getting a hit every time. Seven Illini starters are batting above .300 and Kerian ranks second in the Big Ten in slugging percentage.

Already atop the Big Ten statistically and now at full strength, Illinois can make history. If the Illini sweep this weekend they’d be off to the program’s best start since 1915.

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