Beat writer Jeff Huth breaks down this weekend's Big Ten baseball series between the Illini and Cornhuskers:
Nebraska (6-13) at Illinois (13-4)
SCHEDULE: 4:05 p.m. Friday; 3:05 p.m. Saturday; 12:05 p.m. Sunday. All games at Illinois Field.
RADIO: Saturday’s and Sunday’s games are on WDWS 1400-AM, with Dave Loane (play-by-play) and Scott Beatty (analyst).
SERIES RECORD: Illinois leads 4-2.
LAST MEETING: After winning the 2012 series opener 11-3, the Illini were outscored 31-8 while losing the final two at Lincoln, Neb.
COACHES: Illinois — Dan Hartleb, eighth year (222-183, 99-90 Big Ten); Nebraska — Darin Erstad, second year (41-36, 14-10 Big Ten).
TOP ILLINI HITTERS: CF Justin Parr (.411, 5 2B, 18 RBI); LF Jordan Parr (.324, 3 HR, 18 RBI); SS Thomas Lindauer (.299, 15 RBI).
TOP CORNHUSKERS HITTERS: LF Chad Christensen (.368, .443 OB pct.); 2B Pat Kelly (.292); 3B Josh Scheffert (.221, 11 RBI).
PROBABLE ILLINI STARTERS: Game 1 — RH Kevin Johnson (3-1, 2.48 ERA); Game 2 — RH John Kravetz (2-0, 3.28); Game 3 — TBA.
PROBABLE CORNHUSKERS STARTERS: Game 1 — Christian DeLeon (1-2, 1.91); Game 2 — Ryan Hander (0-2, 4.03); Game 3 — Brandon Pierce (1-3, 5.25).
You need to go back 15 years to find an Illini baseball team on a hotter streak than the current squad. Illinois enters this Big Ten-opening series winner of 12 of its last 13 games. It’s the program’s best stretch since the 1998 Illini won 13 of 14. ... If you’re looking for reasons for the Illini’s success, pitching would be a good place to start. Illinois enters with a 3.10 team ERA, more than a run and a half lower than last season’s final figure (4.77). Thanks to quick-impact freshmen Nick Blackburn and Kevin Duchene, Illinois has more deserving starters than available spots in a weekend series rotation. And the bullpen, led by closer Reid Roper and durable Ronnie Muck, has been deep and highly effective. ... What are the odds of this? In its last two series, when Illinois went 3-0 against both Baylor and Southern Illinois, the Illini mound staff compiled identical 1.86 ERAs. ... Neither right fielder Will Krug nor first baseman David Kerian were starters on Opening Day, but they’re lineup fixtures now. Leadoff batter Krug is hitting .317 and has scored a team-high 16 runs. Kerian’s batting average of .333 ranks second among UI regulars, and he’s getting on base at a .426 clip. ... Illinois has received votes in each of the last two National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association Top 30 polls. The NCAA has yet to release its first RPI of the season, but as of Thursday, the Illini were No. 23 in the boydsworld.com RPI simulation.
ABOUT THE CORNHUSKERS
Don’t place much, if any, significance on Nebraska’s record. The Cornhuskers played an extremely ambitious preconference schedule, facing traditional powers Cal State Fullerton, Texas and Southern California a total of eight times. There also were five games against No. 23 Cal Irvine and New Mexico, an NCAA qualifier each of the past three years. ... Nebraska was picked to finish second in the Big Ten coaches’ preseason poll. No surprise there. The Cornhuskers return six 2012 All-Big Ten honorees, including a trio of first-teamers: left fielder Chad Christensen, center fielder Rich Sanguinetti and outfielder/DH Michael Pritchard. ... Nebraska is without one of its top pitchers. Left-hander Kyle Kubat, a 2012 Freshman All-American, has yet to appear in a game this season due to shoulder soreness.
DID YOU KNOW?
Kansas City Royals left fielder and former Nebraska All-American Alex Gordon donated $1 million to his alma mater to help pay for the school’s $4.75 million indoor baseball and softball practice facility. On March 15, the University of Nebraska Board of Regents approved a request to rename the building the Alex Gordon Training Complex.