Illinois desperately wants to be in the NCAA tournament this year following a year where many believe the Illini were snubbed of a spot in the tournament.
Fast forward almost a year and the Illini are coming off their second straight mid-week, in-state loss as the Bradley Braves out-slugged the Illini on Tuesday.
Illinois has struggled during the week and has scuffled early in Big Ten play, entering the weekend 3-6 in the conference with a win against Maryland and two against Minnesota. Even through the early Big Ten struggles, the Illini still have the third-most overall wins in the conference with 22.
In order to inch back up in the Big Ten standings and pad their tournament resume, the Illini play a pivotal home weekend series against Penn State. PSU comes in with a single win in Big Ten Conference play, making them an opponent the Illini are hungry to not only beat, but sweep.
As has been the routine every weekend, the Illini will most likely send Andy Fisher, Ty Weber and Cyrillo Watson to the mound over the weekend.
Fisher leads the Illini currently with four wins, and has provided quality starts and proven himself as a dependable ace of the pitching staff. The redshirt-senior has also shown signs of dominance on the mound, most recently in a 4-2 loss against Maryland earlier this month.
Weber has really come to play this season, leading the Illini’s starting pitchers with a 1.90 ERA. A mid-90s fastball paired with a deadly curveball gives Weber a recipe for success.
Watson has turned heads all year and has earned the Sunday start in almost every series this season. In eight games started, Watson is 3-1 with a 3.59 ERA.
The starting staff will have a pretty stiff task of going deep in the game, considering Illinois’ bullpen has pitched almost 15 innings already in this calendar week. (The Illini played four games in three days from Sunday-Tuesday.)
When it comes to Illinois winning ballgames in the conference however, the offense is what needs to show up.
Zac Taylor has been an extremely productive and consistent player for head coach Dan Hartleb all year. The Illini have seen a considerable spike in their offense since welcoming him back to the starting lineup after missing nearly 15 games with an ankle injury.
It is also difficult to argue that the Illini have their best shot to win not only with All-American Michael Massey in the lineup, but also in the field. After an injury caused Massey to miss time for the second time this season, he returned to the field on Tuesday and clubbed a home run as well.
- Zac Taylor is on fire at the plate for the Illini. Taylor is 6-for-16 with two home runs and six RBIs in his last four games.
- Grant Van Scoy has reached base in 18 straight games. He leads the Illini in batting average on the season at .363 and is slugging .500.
- Cam McDonald has not only hit safely in seven out of the last 19 at-bats, but the freshman has also been driving in runs out of the fifth spot in Hartleb’s order. McDonald is now at a team-leading 25 RBIs after his two-run double in the first inning of Tuesday’s 12-8 loss.
- Michael Michalak was the only Illini to not get a hit in Tuesday’s offensive explosion against the Bradley Braves. His average has dipped to .260 so Hartleb may look to Andrew Dyke or Branden Comia to DH over the weekend.
- The bullpen has struggled over the last few games. A bullpen pitcher has taken the loss for the Illini in consecutive games. Hartleb will most likely be leaning on Fisher, Weber and Watson to eat up innings so his fatigued bullpen can rest.
- Garrett Acton has been a little shaky his last few times out for the Illini. He has now taken the loss in two games for the Illini despite leading the Big Ten in saves with 11. Acton will most likely be fine considering we are calling him not hot after seeing his ERA jump to only 1.45 (still team-leading). The Illini, of course, hope the games will not need to see a closer this weekend.
AROUND THE BASES
- FIRST BASE The Illini play at home this weekend, where they are 9-3 on the year.
- SECOND BASE Saturday’s game will feature a Bunny at the Ballpark in honor of the Easter Holiday.
- THIRD BASE Grant Van Scoy leads the Illini with a .445 on base percentage. I would not be surprised if Hartleb moves him up in the order, maybe all the way up to second, so Massey, Taylor and Sarver can have the opportunity to drive in more runs.
- HOME Freshman Jacob Campbell exited Tuesday with injury after he had homered innings prior. If Campbell can not suit up his weekend, expect a heavy dose of Jeff Korte and potentially David Craan’s first start of the season.
Entering the home stretch of the season, the Illini only have 18 games left on the season. They hope a weekend series against conference rival Penn State can give them good momentum to finish the season near the top of the Big Ten.
Friday’s game is scheduled for 7:30 p.m., Saturday’s will take place at 3 p.m. and Sunday’s at noon. All three contests can be streamed on BTN Plus.
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