The Bucks travel to Champaign-Urbana this weekend to face the challenge of the Illini’s sharp pitching…the the league’s top hitter in average and home runs, Bren Spillane.
With one slight exception, I’ve always had a lot of respect for the University of Illinois and Illini baseball. Over the years I’ve known some of their players from my era (the 70s), I still maintain professional contacts, and I generally like the history of the school.
You know…Red Grange, Dick Butkus, and do you remember a guy named Lou Boudreau? Boudreau was the player/manager of the 1948 Cleveland Indians, for dyed-in-the-wool Cleveland Indians fans like Alex Morando – the last time the Indians won a World Series. Added bonus points to all if you can tell me who they beat!
That one slight exception? They make a big deal out of what they call ‘victory orange’ (one of their school colors – orange and blue) in Champagne, which always reminds me of too much of a good thing. ORANGE is an accent, not something you want to wear as a majority color. It’s not unlike staring at the sun, or God forbid…going to a Tennessee football game! I consider Jimmy Haslam, the current owner of the Browns, as the satan of orange for having ruined the team’s uniforms with the new color scheme. And of course, we all know what we think of when you mention the Browns….1-31!
But that’s not so at Illinois, where Dan Hartleb has coached and worn the orange for 13 seasons to make the Illini one of the most successful and consistent programs in Big Ten baseball. No different, in 2018, as the Illini currently stand fourth in conference standings (10-5), with customary pitching and the league’s best hitter in Bren Spillane (.425 avg. 16 home runs, and 48 RBIs).
They’ve won a lot under Hartleb in his 13 years wearing orange and blue, including 35 in a row a couple of years ago when the Illini was pitching rich and equally offensive and ruled the Big Ten Conference. Now, after last year’s hiccup and fall in the standings, they’re right back at the top of the league. They’re hitting around the .270 mark, and they pitch, as usual. Their principle weekend starters are all in the 3.50 ERA range, which is impressive when you consider the ballpark at Champaign-Urbana.
“It’s an offensive park,” said Greg Beals this week, with no disrespect to the facility itself. No, it’s just a place where the baseball really flies because of…the wind.
“It’s kind of out in the open,” says reliever Seth Kinker. “And it can be hard to pitch there.”
Without question it’s played into Spillane’s numbers. At this point he’s on track to follow last year’s home run champ, Jake Adams (Iowa), and it will be a priority this weekend to try and keep him in the park. And of course, Wednesday’s non-league game with Ball State is sure to have raised some eyebrows in that regard.
The Buckeyes surrendered five home runs in that game with the Cardinals, and squandered an early 7-3 lead on a windy day much like what they’re likely to encounter in Champaign. After starter Jake Vance departed in the third, the bullpen had its issues, surrendering 8 runs on nine hits over the final seven innings. Beals hopes that, too, was a hiccup.
But the Buckeyes enter the weekend with a 28-14 record, and 9-6 in the Big Ten, and still near the top in most offensive categories. Thanks to the top five in the batting order they’re still hitting .292 as a team, led by Noah McGowan’s remarkable season – a .390 average, 8 home runs, and 49 RBIs. And the next four hitters in the order – Kobie Foppe, Dominic Canzone, Tyler Cowles and Conner Pohl, are all hitting .317 or better.
Pitching-wise, the Buckeyes enter play with a team ERA of 3.91, compared to an Illinois mark of 4.14.
The Illini currently stand sixth in the conference standings (10-5); and the Buckeyes are two notches below in sixth with their 9-6 mark.
Will it be offensive, as Beals predicted?
Well, there’s plenty of incentive as the conference schedule rapidly begins to wind down over the next two weeks. After Illinois only Purdue and Michigan State remain – Purdue at home on May 11, and the Spartans on the road beginning May 17th. It’s not likely they’ll take the outright regular season title, but both teams will be posturing for seeds in the upcoming tournament. As to how they do that……?
I’m thinking Noah McGowan and Bren will have a lot to say about how the weekend shakes. See you there…or read it here!