We should all be as optimistic as UI golf coach Mike Small. Every wayward shot is forgotten. Immediately!
And Terri Sullivan. The Illini softballers have been outscored 35-2 in their last four games, and she’s forever positive. For coaches, it’s in the DNA. You saw it this winter. For John Groce, it was always, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.”
So when Dan Hartleb said his Illini baseball team “should be top three in the Big Ten,” it made a fellow wonder: Was he overlooking a 2-4 conference start and Tuesday’s embarrassing invasion by Eastern Illinois? You read about it. In the UI’s double swoon, the Panthers rolled the Illini in softball 12-1 with Rantoul’s Hanna Mennenga getting 12 of 15 outs via strikeouts, and directly afterward a 10-18 EIU baseball team scored eight runs in a wild sixth inning to bump Hartleb’s gang 8-4.
But Hartleb isn’t blindly optimistic. He has good reasons. This is a solid Illini team with a rampaging center fielder — Justin Parr is batting .436 with a 17-game hitting streak — and a crack shortstop in Thomas Lindauer (six homers, brilliant fielder). The Illini opened 13-4 in their frigid February-March travels, beating Baylor three times and serving nemesis SIU three losses.
The more recent 6-2 win against Missouri at Busch Stadium was a high moment.
But the time for talk is behind. Purdue arrives on a chilly Friday for a three-game series, and the 24-game Big Ten season is too short for further meandering. It is already one-fourth over.
Run to glory
Hartleb will lead his pitching rotation with two Chicago Mount Carmel products, fourth-year starter Kevin Johnson and sophomore John Kravetz.
Ryan Castellanos, a freshman from Davie, Fla., gets his second start after breaking the 18-game win streak of No. 16 Indiana, 3-2. Justin Parr, the lefty-swing twin from Chillicothe, went 4 for 4 to spark the win. He cracked a homer in his second straight game Tuesday against EIU and ranks in the top 10 nationally with 54 hits.
“Justin has shown a lot of patience batting in the three-hole,” Hartleb said. “We’ve run a lot at the top of the order, and so he doesn’t get as many off-speed pitches.”
Even with Willie Argo graduated — he set a school record with 98 steals — the Illini continue to run. They have 65 stolen bases with some dazzling percentages: David Kerian 13 of 13, Justin Parr 13 of 14, Jordan Parr 11 of 12 and Will Krug 8 of 10. Krug was hit in the wrist at Indiana, and Hartleb turned over leadoff to Jordan Parr in the last two games.
“We outhit Indiana in the series (27-21),” Hartleb said, “but we didn’t hit well with runners in scoring position. We had our chances. We’re 2-4 in the league, and now it’s time to get healthy in the Big Ten standings.”
Tournament or bust
With better weather promised for Sunday’s 2 p.m. game, the BTN will be on hand for the fifth annual Bleacher Bum Barbecue. This drew a high of 5,214 fans in 2009, and Sunday’s game again will feature free parking, free admission and free food for the first 1,000 fans.
One question hovers: Are Illini starting pitchers good enough?
Johnson is 17-15 in his career and accustomed to dealing with rival aces on Friday night. He has thrown consecutive complete games, but two early homers at Indiana cost him in a 3-2 verdict. He’s not overpowering, which explains why he returned for his senior year, but he leads the team in strikeouts with 39 in 55 2/3 innings and shows a 1.94 ERA.
Kravetz is 11-4 in a season and a half, and has been generally effective though permitting seven runs in 5 2/3 innings against Nebraska. The third starter, Castellanos, has just 17 innings of college pitching and joins two other freshmen, Kevin Duchene and Nick Blackburn, in offering future promise. The three newcomers have started 11 games with a record of 7-2.
But when it comes to arms, the most encouraging aspect is the bullpen, where co-closers Bryan Roberts and Reid Roper, who doubles at second base, excel. Roberts, who had Tommy John surgery, is making his first extended showing since 2010. He is 3-0 and has fanned 12 while not permitting a run in 10 innings, and Roper has allowed two earned runs in 8 2/3 innings.
There are many positive aspects to Hartleb’s eighth UI team. They have more than enough talent to qualify for the Big Ten tournament May 22-25. The infield is sound on the demanding left side with Lindauer and four-year third sacker Brandon Hohl. The Parr twins anchor the outfield. Freshman catcher Jason Goldstein is starting to hit (10 for his last 23).
But they’re past the point of talking about it. The Boilermakers face few opponents they have more fun beating than their western neighbors. They’ve whipped Illinois in 16 of the last 23 in baseball, 10 of 13 in football, 23 of 35 in men’s basketball and an astounding 44 of 49 in women’s basketball.
Maybe we should consider any Illinois success over Purdue an upset.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.
If it’s too cold for you to venture outside, no worries. Much of this weekend’s Illinois lineup is getting special TV and radio treatment:
5-6 p.m. — Steve Kelly has former Illini Martin O’Donnell and J Leman on WDWS 1400-AM’s “SportsTalk” to preview Friday’s spring football game.
6 p.m. — Scott Beatty joins Dave Loane to call the UI’s baseball game against Purdue.
8 p.m. — Voice of the Illini Brian Barnhart will call the spring football game on BTN along with Leman and Kara Lentz. On WDWS, Kelly will be joined by Kurt Kittner and O’Donnell in the booth.
10 a.m. — UI athletic director Mike Thomas makes his weekly appearance on WDWS’ “Saturday Sportsline.”
3 p.m. — Hall of Famer Itch Jones joins Loane on WDWS’ call of the UI’s baseball game against Purdue.
2 p.m. — Columnist Loren Tate takes his turn in the booth, teaming with Loane to call the UI’s series finale against Purdue.