CHAMPAIGN – Ahhh, baseball on a sun-kissed spring afternoon ... after all those shivering days of winter ... enhanced by a team that gives you something to cheer about.
Maybe it''s a carryover from basketball, but enthusiastic Illini fans turned out in record numbers for the 2-2 weekend split with Michigan. The three-day attendance reached 4,182, largest at Illinois Field with the exception of a Spring Sports Festival in 1990 – when baseball was bolstered by an adjoining track meet and the spring football game and drew 5,820 for two doubleheaders with the same Wolverines.
Don''t minimize the split. This power-packed Michigan team started 16-3 and was No. 19 in the nation before venturing into the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, where, as we see in basketball, depth perception devastates the unfamiliar (ain''t that right, Cardinals fans?). So the Wolverines went 0-4 at Minnesota and 1-3 against Iowa, giving them rattler-like instincts when they arrived here.
But Illinois countered with three solid pitching performances before running aground 8-5 as four UI hurlers failed to stymie the visitors Sunday.
"We are comfortable with our top three starters," said associate head coach Dan Hartleb, referring to senior Jimmy Conroy and juniors Brian Blomquist and Matt Whitmore.
"We have talent at the fourth slot, but we''re not producing. Next weekend (at Indiana) we''ll have to go through the first three games and see who is used in the bullpen. James Morris is a lefty with a great arm but isn''t pitching with a lot of confidence. He went out there (Sunday) to see what happens rather than dictate. And he hurt himself with his defensive play."
With Illinois ahead 3-0 on Dusty Bensko''s first-inning homer, Morris speared a sharp one-hopper with runners on first and third and none out. He had an easy double play, but the runner on third confused him. He threw the ball wildly into center field. Unsettled, he let Michigan forge ahead 4-3. Illinois caught up at 5-5 but couldn''t solve reliever Derek Feldkamp, who was the victim of Friday''s eighth-inning rally.
The question remains: Can Illinois maintain the strong play demonstrated in a 9-3 Big Ten start? Will the pitching hold up? Can they stay on pace with Minnesota into mid-May when they''ll play at Siebert Field, and not the Dome, in Minneapolis?
Hitting shouldn''t be a problem. There is no better batting technician than Itch Jones, and this team shows his handiwork. Bensko, J.R. Kyes and Ryan Rogowski are hitting better than .350 in a lineup busting with line-drive punch. Just another single or two by right fielder Trevor Huisinga, and the Illini would have eight starters past the .300 plateau.
But at the college level, pitching is always a worry. Like young 6-foot-9 leapers in basketball, the 95 mph fireballers don''t stick around as amateurs.
When Hartleb was asked if any of his three aces might tune up with a few innings Tuesday against Illinois State here, he answered:
"Blomquist (7-1) is coming off Tommy John (reconstructive elbow) surgery. Conroy (5-1) was hurt last year. And Whitmore (3-1) had a sore shoulder and didn''t throw last summer or in the fall (after arriving from John A. Logan College, where he was 22-4).
"They could probably throw a few innings Tuesday, but we just can''t take the chance."
The reporter''s question stemmed from the memory of midweek games in early April, when Western Michigan pummeled the Illini 12-10 and 22-15. If a week consisted of eight or nine days, it might make sense to give Blomquist an extra start. He certainly doesn''t need six days'' rest. But he threw 111 pitches in eight hard innings Friday, and a fast start in the Indiana series far outweighs any other considerations.
This quest for the Big Ten baseball title comes as a mild surprise after the problems of recent years.
The Illini haven''t reached .500 in the conference since 2000, when they won the Big Ten tournament and finished 41-23 after losing to Clemson (9-3) and Middle Tennessee (4-3) in the NCAA Clemson Regional. They have failed to qualify for the Big Ten tournament the last three years, falling to ninth place with an 11-21 league showing last spring.
But Jones had a veteran team ready to make a run if the ailing pitchers could recover. It is a senior-laden lineup that will be tough to replace, probably making this a one-year opportunity.
Slugging center fielder Drew Davidson is a senior, as are regular infielders Bensko, Kyes, Toby Gardenhire and Chad Frk, and Rock Island righthander Conroy. Then, too, Canadian catcher Chris Robinson, who played in the Junior World Championships and batted .359 for the Illini last year as a sophomore, might be tempted by professional dollars.
So next season will require a major makeover with designated hitter Mike Rohde, reserve Shawn Roof and injured Ryan Hastings helping to form a new infield as Hartleb reaches into his bag of tricks for more pitching.
But the future can wait. First on the agenda is to make hay with a 9-3 start as the Illini wade into five four-game series beginning Friday at Indiana.
Oh, what fun it could be ... if the pitching holds up and the weather holds out.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.