Illinois (8-10) rebounded from a three-game losing streak with an 8-3 win over Illinois State earlier this week. They scored eight unanswered runs to mount the comeback victory. It will hopefully be the momentum they need to jumpstart their season; the team has already collected three losing streaks of two games or more. The Illini will finally host a game in Champaign, as they open Big Ten play this weekend against Penn State. The first game starts Friday at 6:00pm CT at Illinois Field. Saturday's first pitch is at 3:00pm CT and Sunday's matchup begins at noon. The leader of the orange and blue so far in 2016 has been catcher/designated hitter Jason Goldstein. An All-Big Ten player last year, Goldstein is hitting nearly .380 in 46 at-bats this season in the middle of the Illinois lineup.
Penn State (9-10) had a comeback win of their own this past Tuesday over West Virginia. They have an identical record to the Illini, but they've taken a very different path to get there. The Nittany Lions have won four one-run games already in 2016, but when they lose, they lose big. The team was mired in a six-game losing streak in late February, getting swept at South Carolina by a combined final score of 27-6. Third baseman Jim Haley is PSU's best weapon; he's started all 18 games and is hitting .343 with 17 RBIs and three long balls.
Projected Starting Lineups
Illinois Fighting Illini
Penn State Nittany Lions
1. James Coates - LF
2. Conlin Hughes - SS
3. Jim Haley - 3B
4. Nick Riotto - RF
5. Willie Burger - 1B
6. Keith Leavitt - DH
7. Jordan Bowersox - CF
8. Christian Helsel - 2B
9. Nick Graham - C
*Pitching matchups based on rotation from previous week*
Friday, March 25 -- Cody Sedlock (3.98, 3-1) vs. Justin Hagenman (1.12 ERA, 3-1)
Saturday, March 26 (on BTN) -- Doug Hayes (3.86 ERA, 2-2) vs. Taylor Lehman (4.50 ERA, 1-4)
Sunday, March 27 -- Cole Bellair (0.46 ERA, 0-0) vs. Sal Biasi (4.86 ERA, 2-2)
The Illini haven't had the start to the 2016 season they were looking for, but Big Ten play offers a chance to turn everything around. This team lost a lot of the core pieces from last year's 50-win squad, but they still have what it takes to go for two straight Big Ten regular season titles. I'll say Illinois takes two out of three this weekend and starts off the conference slate on the right foot.