Illini baseball set for home opener against Chicago State

By Peter Bailey-Wells

For the Illinois baseball team, it’s finally time to come home. After four consecutive weekend road trips, the Illini play in their home opener Tuesday afternoon against Chicago State at Illinois Field.

Illinois (11-3-1) is riding the momentum of a series victory over then-No. 10 Oklahoma State, after the Illini topped them twice in three games this weekend in Stillwater, Okla.

Chicago State (2-11) was swept by California in a three-game series this weekend.

The Illini’s momentum may not matter against a Cougar squad that opened the season on a five-game losing streak and has lost six of its last seven. But despite Chicago State’s poor record and Illinois’ ranking in multiple top-25 polls, head coach Dan Hartleb isn’t taking anything for granted.

“When you get recognition, you have to be able to handle it,” Hartleb said. “I feel like we’ve earned that recognition, but we have to continue to move forward.”

Tuesday’s game will be the first in a nine-game homestand for the Illini. After spending a month on the road, Illinois does not play an away game again until March 27, when it heads to East Lansing, Mich., to face Michigan State in the team’s Big Ten opener.

The last time Chicago State visited Champaign was for Illinois’ 2010 home opener — the Illini throttled the Cougars 18-2.

Scoring 18 runs would be a welcome result for an Illini offense that has struggled as of late. Senior infielder Reid Roper, the team’s leading hitter, was batting .413 before the Oklahoma State series and is now at .368 — he only picked up two hits on the weekend.

The team only has two players batting above .300 (Roper and senior outfielder Casey Fletcher) and senior leadoff man Will Krug, a career .302 hitter, has a measly .179 average.

“After a weekend like this, I have to get some homework done,” Krug said. “It helps to take a little bit of a break and regroup.”

While the Illinois offense hasn’t been at its best, the Illini pitching staff has carried the team. The team’s ERA is 2.00, led by junior Tyler Jay, who hasn’t given up a run in 20 1/3 innings and junior Kevin Duchene, who has surrendered just one run through two seven-inning starts.

Duchene (2-0), benched at the beginning of the season by Hartleb for off-the-field issues, has been lights-out in his two starts this season. He collected wins in both and opponents are batting .163 against him. Duchene credited his success to his teammates’ support but doesn’t think he’s back to top form.

“My game still needs a lot of refinement,” Duchene said. “I’ve had trouble locating my changeup a little bit to righthanders, but I’m back out there and I’m confident.”

Jay (3-0, four saves) has been the team’s top pitcher from the start of the season, living up to his selection as a preseason All-American. After collecting a win and a save in two appearances against Oklahoma State, Jay was awarded Big Ten Pitcher of the Week honors for the first time in his career.

Jay’s pitching is a big reason why Illinois has five more wins so far this season than it did through 15 games last season. That success carries over to the clubhouse atmosphere — Duchene said the team chemistry is the best of any team he’s ever played with.

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