Coming off a rough weekend at Penn State, the University of Illinois baseball team finds themselves in eighth place in the Big Ten and fighting for a Tournament berth. For the last regular season series, the Illini (9-12) take on the Minnesota Golden Gophers (10-11) here at home beginning this Thursday.
Outfielder Jordan Parr (right) leads the Illini in batting average (.354) and RBI (42).
It was indeed a tough series to lose for the Illini. Yes, they were swept all three games, but Penn State (13-8) outscored the good guys by a total of only four runs. Not only that, the three Illinois starting pitchers gave up a total of just seven earned runs.
Friday’s game saw starter Kevin Johnson back to his usual prowess. He pitched his fourth complete game of 2012, allowing just one walk and seven hits. But three runs (and only two earned) was enough for Penn State as they won 3–2. On Saturday, the Illini offense came alive a little, scoring three runs in the first inning. However, Penn State had other ideas as they banged out four home runs in the game. Illini reliever Ronnie Muck, who has been tough all year, took the loss in the 8–6 PSU win.
In the final game on Sunday, Drasen Johnson took the mound for the Illini for his third start of the year. It was a good move on Coach Hartleb’s part, as Johnson pitched a great game, compiling five scoreless innings before giving up one run in the sixth. Once again, however, the offense couldn’t get going and Illinois had to settle for a 3–2 loss.
Big Ten Player of the Week Jordan Steranka was the Nit who really killed us. He hit homers on Friday and Saturday and slapped three doubles on the weekend.
Let’s do some Tournament Math
Getting swept by Penn State puts Illinois in a precarious spot when it comes to a Big Ten Baseball Tournament berth. To gain entry to the tournament, a Big Ten team needs to place sixth or higher. Right now, Illinois is in eighth place with a 9-12 record in the Big Ten standings. Do they have a shot? Well, in short, yes. You can check my math, but a combination of five Illinois wins and Ohio State losses this weekend would mean the Fighting Illini would be on their way to Columbus, Ohio next week.
It’s a long shot, but it’s not impossible. I’m always looking on the bright side of things, so what do the Illini have going for them? Actually, a few things:
One, Illinois is playing at home this weekend. Don’t underestimate the effect of the home crowd. Two, the Illini will be playing Minnesota, who is right above them in the standings, so a win for Illinois means a loss for them. Illinois won’t have to rely on anybody else. Third, sixth-place Ohio State is playing a tough second place Indiana team and they’re playing them at Bloomington. Yeah, it’s time to root for the Hoosiers this weekend.
Finally, Big Ten Tournament rules may help the Illini this year. Should Ohio State and Illinois tie for sixth place, Big Ten regulations state that head-to-head record dictate who goes on to the tournament. Their 2-1 series win over the Buckeyes earlier this year would give the edge to Illinois.
Again, it’s a long shot, but I’ve seen stranger things happen.
If you haven’t been to an Illinois Baseball game this year, this weekend is your last chance! I alluded to this earlier, but the schedule is a bit different this weekend. The games will take place on Thursday (6:35 p.m.), Friday (6:05 p.m.), and Saturday (12:05 p.m.) instead of the normal weekend schedule. The probable reason for this is so teams lucky enough to participate in the Big Ten Tournament can make travel arrangements.
You can find the official series preview at Fightingillini.com. Probable starters are Kevin Johnson, John Kravetz, and Drasen Johnson (looks like he earned another start).
As for my take, Minnesota (28-25, 10-11 Big Ten) has gotten where they are because of their pitching. Friday starter TJ Oakes (7-3, 1.94 ERA) is a big part of that. Their bullpen is also quite formidable. The Gophers’ hitting, particularly their power, is somewhat suspect (only 10 homers in 2012), but in the Big Ten, that might not mean so much.
Get out to the park and support your Illini!!
See you at the ballpark!
Read more of Tom’s Illini coverage at Illinois Baseball Report.