Illini series promises to be a battle

by Sarah Mitchell

The Illinois baseball team might fly into Minneapolis this weekend with a little extra baggage. After winning the Big Ten regular season championship last season, the favored Illini surrendered the Big Ten tournament title to the Gophers.
Coming out of the tournament’s loser’s bracket, Illinois led by as many as four runs in its must-win game against Minnesota. But with two down in the ninth inning, former Gopher Mark Groebner’s two-RBI single gave Minnesota the win over host Illinois.
“That’ll probably be key for them playing us,” freshman Jon Nuss said. “We got them last year and they had a lot of expectations. We always play them tough and they always come ready to play.”
Despite the loss, the Illini recorded their most successful season in school history, falling just one run short of a College World Series appearance. That was last year, however.
Since the end of the its record-breaking season, Illinois (26-17 overall, 11-9 in the Big Ten) lost an All-American, the Big Ten pitcher of the year, two first-team All-Big Ten players, two second-team All-Big Ten players, two third-team All-Big Ten players and five members to professional ball.
The departures might account for the team’s inconsistency this year. Last weekend, the Illini were tied for sixth in league standings, but after sweeping Iowa they are in sole possession of third.
“Those guys who left were a big part of the team, not just talent-wise, but there’s a tangible level there of leadership,” Gophers coach John Anderson said. “I think that’s a little bit of what you are seeing there.”
Illinois’ talent well hasn’t run completely dry. The entire infield from a year ago remains intact, including Big Ten player of the year D.J. Svhilik, and so does most of the team’s offensive lineup.
The Illini lead the conference in hitting with a .337 batting average. This means the Gophers (31-11, 12-4) pitching staff could be the ultimate deciding factor this weekend.
“We have a good pitching staff. We just have to get a good weekend out of all of our starters,” Gophers catcher Jeremy Negen said, “and then let our bullpen come in and do what they can.”
The bullpen has been Illinois’ downfall. Most of the staff’s experience left when three of the team’s four starters, including staff ace Brett Weber, ended their collegiate careers last season.
Illinois has a 6.37 ERA in comparison to the Gophers 5.60 ERA. Last season, the Illini led the league in pitching and this season have plummeted to eighth.
“I don’t think they’re pitching as well as they did last year,” Anderson said. “I haven’t seen them play, but it looks that way on paper. So much is dictated by how you pitch.”
Despite Illinois’ depleted pitching staff, Anderson expects the series to be as competitive as ever. Both teams enter the weekend looking to makeup for mid-week defeats (the Gophers lost 7-6 in extra innings at Iowa State on Wednesday) and gain ground on conference-leading Ohio State.
“We’re getting back to playing good baseball,” Negen said. “We went away from that a few times. “We have to put together a full game and then do the little things to help us win a ballgame that we haven’t done for a while.”