Base running blunders cost Illini
CHAMPAIGN — Dan Hartleb was ticked off about the pick-offs.
Little wonder, given the base-running meltdown his Illinois baseball team experienced Sunday afternoon at Illinois Field.
The typically aggressive Illini were picked off four times, squandering precious base runners in a tight Big Ten game ultimately won by Michigan, 4-2.
“We were very poor (at) base running,” Hartleb said. “We guessed instead of reading (the pitcher). In one situation, we’re not even (trying to steal) and we get picked off when you’re down a run.
“That’s not intelligent.”
It also wasn’t something new to this series.
Illinois also had two runners picked off in the opener on Friday. The Illini (18-13, 6-3 Big Ten) managed to win that night, but they ended up losing the series.
Sunday’s mistake-riddled finale was the toughest to swallow for an Illinois team that had won six in a row before stumbling Saturday.
“We didn’t do the little things to win the series, and they did, so it’s definitely disappointing,” Illini shortstop Adam Walton said. “I thought we should have taken two out of three at least, if not swept them.
“We’ve got to clean it up. We’ve got to get better ... in every aspect.”
It should have come as no surprise that Michigan (16-19-1, 6-6) paid such close attention to UI base runners all series.
Illinois entered the weekend ranked fourth in the Big Ten in stolen bases and had attempted 64 steals in its first 28 games.
Michigan pitchers repeatedly threw to first base to keep Illini runners close to the bag, and they weren’t averse to attempting pick-offs at other bases either.
“In the Big Ten, everybody knows we’re an aggressive team and that we like to steal bases,” Illini first baseman David Kerian said. “They obviously knew that and took advantage of it.”
Said Hartleb: “As poor as we were and kept getting picked off, I’d keep picking over, too. I mean, we’re giving them outs.”
You could even say Michigan paid a left-handed compliment to the UI’s running game.
Until this series, the Wolverines’ Big Ten starting rotation had included two left-handers and one right-hander.
Against Illinois, Michigan coach Erik Bakich went with three lefty starters, adding Logan McAnallen to the mix on Sunday.
Because lefties face first base when they work out of the stretch, they can keep a closer eye on runners at that base.
As it turned out, of Michigan’s six pick-offs, five were by left-handers.
“Their lefties had a good move,” said Walton, who was picked off twice in the series, including once on Sunday. “We were going (toward second) on first movement and they caught us leaning, or they just caught us. I don’t have an explanation for it.”
Kerian did, echoing Hartleb’s thoughts about first getting a feel for a pitcher’s pick-off move before taking off.
“You just have to read it rather than guess,” the Illini junior said. “And that’s what the coaches tell us — read it; don’t guess — because that’s when you get in trouble. And that’s what happened to us.”
Not only did the Wolverines catch Illinois runners napping, they all but shut down that important aspect of the UI attack.
Kerian recorded the Illini’s lone steal of the series on Sunday, swiping second base in the sixth inning en route to scoring a run that tied the game at 2.
But that inning could have yielded so much more for Illinois.
After Kerian had rounded the bases, the Illini had runners on first and second with no outs.
Then, they had the bases loaded with one out.
Illinois couldn’t capitalize, however, stranding all three runners when Ryne Roper struck out and Walton hit into an inning-ending force-out.
“That’s an inning we should easily score two, three, four, five runs and put the game away,” Walton said, “but we just didn’t do our jobs.”
Despite the flurry of pick-offs, don’t look for the Illini to pull back on their aggressiveness on the bases.
For a team that is short on long-ball power, the running game is too integral a part of this offense.
“It was a rough day (Sunday), but that’s not going to stop us from doing what we do,” said Walton, who ranks second on the team in steals with seven. “That’s the way we score runs. We’re not a home run-hitting team. We need to steal bases to be successful.”
Hartleb wholeheartedly agrees, with one critical proviso.
“We’re not going to step back from that, but you still have to be intelligent about it,” he said. “You can’t guess. And that’s what we did (Sunday). We just flat-out guessed.”