Oklahoma State pose challenge for Illini baseball

By Peter Bailey-Wells

After two undefeated weekends to start the season, the Illinois baseball team finally got a taste of losing last weekend, dropping two games in the Chanticleer Classic in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

Things don’t get any easier this weekend.

On Friday, Illinois (9-2-1) starts a three-game series against Oklahoma State (7-4) in Stillwater, Oklahoma. The teams will play a game on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

The Cowboys, ranked as high as No. 10 in some national polls, is currently the only opponent on the Illini’s schedule ranked in the top 25.

After appearing as high as No. 25 in some of last week’s polls, Illinois is unranked this week.

Despite dropping two early games in last weekend’s five-game series, the Illini cruised back to pick up wins against West Virginia and Coastal Carolina. The Illinois pitching staff allowed just two total runs in the two games.

Despite his team’s two-game winning streak, head coach Dan Hartleb isn’t euphoric.

“I don’t think momentum matters a lot in baseball,” Hartleb said. “You pitch one guy one day and they pitch one guy one day, and the next day you throw someone else. That’s what matters more.”

Hartleb’s gotten a lot out of his pitching staff this season. Illinois ranks second in the Big Ten in ERA (1.67), and first in opponent batting average (.173) and strikeouts (105). Junior Tyler Jay — who, dating back to last season, hasn’t been credited with a run in 18 consecutive innings — has paced the staff.

“I’ve been working on a lot of stuff since I’ve been doing starting and closing,” Jay said. “I’ve been learning to pitch to contact.”

By contrast, Oklahoma State, who plays in the Big 12, generally considered a top conference for baseball, has a team ERA of 3.15. The Cowboys have given up more hits, runs and walks than the Illini despite playing in one fewer game.

However, Oklahoma State has been strong at the plate, led by do-it-all senior Gage Green. Green plays both at catcher and in the outfield, and was named First Team All-Big 12 last season as a catcher. He leads the team in batting average, hits and home runs. His .634 slugging percentage is also tops on the team, which slugs .410 as a whole (Illinois’ team slugging percentage is .374).

The Cowboys canceled a midweek series against UNLV due to weather concerns — otherwise they would have played home games against the Rebels on Tuesday and Wednesday before facing off with the Illini on Friday. Despite Oklahoma State’s high national profile, senior outfielder Casey Fletcher isn’t backing down.

“I have to say, ‘bring on the challenge,’” Fletcher said. “It’s a very important weekend to show the nation we’re going to be a top team at the end of the year.”

The Cowboys are coming off of one of the best seasons in school history — the team went 48-18 and won the Big 12 regular season title for the first time. They also hosted and won an NCAA Regional, advancing to the Super Regionals before losing to UC-Irvine. The team’s 48 wins were the fifth-most in the country in 2014 and the most wins in a season for the program in 20 years.

After this weekend, the Illini play their home opener against Chicago State on Tuesday, but Hartleb doesn’t want his team to get ahead of itself.

“I know guys will be excited to come home,” Hartleb said. “But we have to take care of business first.”

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