The Illini baseball team begins defense of its Big Ten co-title tonight when it opens conference play at Nebraska. Beat writer JEFF HUTH offers an update on streaking Illinois, which has won six of its last eight games to improve to 10-7.
For the second time in 20 years, the Big Ten welcomes a new member to its baseball-playing fraternity. Two decades after Penn State joined the conference, Nebraska has followed suit after leaving the Big 12. When the Cornhuskers play their first Big Ten game tonight, Illinois will be in the other dugout for the historic debut. BTN cameras will be on hand, too, carrying the game — scheduled to start at 6:35 p.m. — live from 8,500-seat Hawks Field at Haymarket Park. "I think it's a positive for the conference," UI coach Dan Hartleb said of Nebraska's addition. "If you look at their facilities, it shows what emphasis they have on baseball. I think a new school that has a genuine interest in their program being successful is good for all of us." The Cornhuskers (15-8) already have played 13 home games this season, going 9-4 at Hawks Field. On Monday, Nebraska earned its first league honors in baseball, with corner infielder Josh Scheffert being named Big Ten Player of the Week and second baseman Pat Kelly the Freshman of the Week.
Change of plans
Entering the season, Hartleb projected a starting rotation of Kevin Johnson, Nick Chmielewski and Rob McDonnell. As the Illini enter the Big Ten race, Johnson has solidified his spot as the Game 1 starter with a 3-1 record and 2.70 ERA. But the rest of the rotation has undergone changes. With Chmielewski struggling to regain his form following reconstructive elbow surgery and McDonnell experiencing soreness after undergoing the same procedure, Hartleb has been forced to look elsewhere for starters. That search has led to a pair of freshman right-handers — John Kravetz and Josh Ferry. Kravetz has been a revelation, going 3-0 with a team-best 1.99 ERA in five appearances. Already, the Chicago Mount Carmel grad has twice been named Big Ten Freshman of the Week. Ferry (1-0, 4.11 ERA) held Southern Illinois to five hits in 6 1/3 innings while striking out five Sunday. "Things are starting to sort themselves out, and we've had some young guys performing when they get opportunities," Hartleb said. "I think that (competition) makes everybody better. When young guys are doing well, I think in the long run it makes your team a better team."
When catcher Adam Davis was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles last June and turned pro following his junior year, the Illini had a sizable void to fill. Not only was Davis a key cog in a potent 2011 Illini attack, but, more important, he was a savvy handler of pitchers and did his part to keep opponents in check on the bases (throwing out 18 would-be base stealers). Redshirt freshman Kelly Norris-Jones — the latest member of Illinois' Canadian pipeline of catchers — won the vacant job entering the season. Then Norris-Jones suffered a concussion in a game March 11 when he was hit in the helmet by a bat on a follow-through swing. Quickly, Illinois' depth at the position was put to the test, with redshirt sophomore Alex Lincoln and sophomore Ryan Arrick filling in behind the plate. Lincoln already was seeing playing time as a late-inning defensive replacement. He's been getting the job done with the bat, too, hitting .375 in 16 at-bats. Norris-Jones will make the trip to Nebraska and could return to action, according to Hartleb. If not, the coach feels confident about his depth at catcher with Lincoln and Arrick. "I think both those guys can do a good job," he said.