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Illini looking to build on sweep

Last weekend, the second half of the Big Ten conference baseball season started and the Illini got just what they needed, a three-game sweep. Their victims were Illinois’ cross-state rivals, the Northwestern Wildcats. The Wildcats entered the series in a last place tie with Michigan, so the Illini were poised to win, but they won each game in style. 

Weekend Highlights

Starter Kevin Johnson (right, pictured in a game earlier this season) pitched his best game yet in 2012 on Friday. He threw a complete game shutout and struck out a season high nine batters. Johnson is now 7–3 for the year. In 2011, it was almost frustrating how the Illini offense would not support Johnson when he pitched, or at least it seemed that way. However in 2012, it almost seems that the offense scores just enough for him to win. Such was the case on Friday. Illinois came through for two runs and that was all KJ needed to win. Wildcat starter Francis Brooke was the hard luck loser. Not only did he pitch a complete game with nine strikeouts, but both runs scored with the help of errors by his teammates.

On Saturday, starter John Kravetz kept Wildcats scoreless for six more straight innings till they managed to score in the seventh. Meanwhile, the Illini had no problem putting up runs early. With the help of Kelly Norris-Jones (2 for 4, 2B, 2 rbis) and Jordan Parr (2 for 4, 2B, rbi, run), Illinois scored three runs in the first two innings and added two more in the sixth. Ronnie Muck came in to pitch in the sixth and allowed just one hit in three shutout innings for his third save of 2012. The 5–4 Illinois win was Kravetz’ seventh of the year breaking the team record for wins by a freshman. Pretty amazing considering we have so much of the season left!

On Sunday, Matt Milroy did his magic once again. This time, the Wildcats got off to a 2–0 lead by the third inning. That was, until Milroy came in relief in the third inning. He pitched nothing short of a dominating game from then on. In 6 2/3 innings, Milroy struck out 11 batters and allowed only 2 hits. The Illinois offense picked away at Northwestern pitching and scored a run each in the fourth, sixth, and eighth innings. That was enough for a 3–2 win for Illinois. 

Milroy, by the way, now has 54 strikeouts in 41 innings this year. He’s now in the conference leaders in that category despite only starting two games. Maybe it’s me, but I think he thrives in that long relief role. Matt won the Big Ten Pitcher of the Week earlier in the season doing something very similar to what he did Sunday. He struck out 10 in long relief against Indiana in April and got the win. I almost wondered if he might get a repeat honor (alas, he didn’t).

What a difference two weeks makes! On April 20, just before the Ohio State series, Illinois was hanging with Michigan in ninth place. Now, after a 2–1 win against those Buckeyes and a sweep against the Wildcats, they’ve risen five spots in the Big Ten standings to a three-way tie with Michigan State and Nebraska.

Next Up

Speaking of the Spartans, they’ll be Illinois’ next opponents this coming weekend at Illinois Field. This is a HUGE series in so many ways. Aside from the fact that we are in a close race with them and that only the top six teams go the Big Ten Tournament, Michigan State has always seemed to be a big rival of the Orange and Blue. Maybe it goes back to the Roof brothers rivalry from a few years back or maybe it goes back to the late season game five years ago when Illinois came back from seven runs down to defeat the Spartans and make it into the Big Ten Tournament while at the same time knocking MSU out of tournament eligibility (never will forget that game). But the rivalry is there and once again, the games really count this year.

If baseball isn’t enough to get you out to Illinois Field, maybe food is. This weekend is the big Fourth annual Bleacher Bum BBQ promo. Free food, fun, prizes and a big crowd! These last four years, the Bleacher Bum BBQ has been the largest attended game. So come on out!! Bring your family and friends! Game time is 6:00 p.m. on Friday, but gates open at 4:30 p.m. so you can get your chow. 

I hope to see you there.

See you at the ballpark!!!


Read more from Thomas at Illinois Baseball Report.

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