Loren Tate: Tests on tap for baseball

Loren Tate: Tests on tap for baseball

Dan Hartleb’s pitching-strong Illini are building momentum for four of the season’s most significant baseball challenges: a 6:30 p.m. makeup date with Missouri on Wednesday at Busch Stadium and three weekend home dates against Indiana, 11-1 in the Big Ten and ranked 13th nationally by the Collegiate Baseball Newspaper.

A 3-2 defeat of visiting Eastern Illinois ran the hot streak to four Tuesday at windy, chilly Illinois Field.

“We played errorless ball, and we got good pitching,” Hartleb said. “We’ve seen a lot of that. It’s a luxury we have.”

Oncoming lefty Rob McDonnell, a redshirt junior from Barrington, allowed the only two runs in a five-inning stint. Seldom-used Andrew Mamlic faced 10 batters in three crisp innings, and curveballing southpaw Tyler Jay fanned Urbana’s Trey Russell with two aboard to close out a nervous ninth.

The UI’s pop-gun offense shows just eight homers in 36 games. But two key doubles proved decisive Tuesday, Jason Goldstein getting an RBI with a rocket inside third base, and shortstop Adam Walton bouncing a ground-rule two-bagger over the right-field fence in the two-run third.

Ahead 3-2, Illinois might have scored more but encountered base-running troubles, losing three on steals. In their last five innings, the Illini had 10 base runners and no scores.

“We want to be aggressive,” Hartleb said, “but we’ve also got to be smart about it.”

Sophomore ace Kevin Duchene remains sidelined for another week, Hartleb leaning Wednesday to Cody Sedlock, a freshman from Rock Island Alleman, while saving his three regular starters for the hot-hitting Hoosiers.

Haith had his reasons

Down in Columbia, Frank Haith slipped out of town almost unnoticed and be-
fore the posse was fully formed.

And lest you question why a Missouri basketball coach with records of 30-5, 23-11 and 24-12 would move less than sideways to Tulsa, consider:

(1) Mizzou season ticket revenue was dipping, (2) Haith, who sat out five games this season as a penalty, was hired from Miami without full knowledge of his involvement in the scandal there, (3) Haith’s dependence on transfers didn’t meet campus approval and ran aground when Jordan Clarkson and Jabari Brown left early, (4) athletic director Mike Alden set 2014-15 criteria Haith couldn’t meet and (5) the program appeared headed for the dumper.

So, yes, an improving Illini team has an excellent opportunity to make it two straight in the UI’s most significant neutral-court contest in St. Louis.

Fact is, most of Illinois’ main rivals appear to be in slippage mode.

— Indiana: Noah Vonleh joined the one-and-done crowd, and coach Tom Crean has issues matching physical Big Ten rebounders.

— Michigan State: Tom Izzo has done wonders, but he’s been fanning on top recruits. Demonstrating that he can’t do it without players, the Spartans finished 8-8 twice and 9-9 once in the Big Ten since 2006. They’ll miss Adreian Payne, Gary Harris and Keith Appling, even though the latter struggled this past season.

— Ohio State: Thad Matta is taking the transfer route to replace LaQuinton Ross, Aaron Craft and Lenzelle Smith. Point is, several of the Big Ten perennials — and this might include Michigan — are leaving space near the top (under Wisconsin) that the Illini have a legitimate shot at.

Tate’s tidbits

Q: How would an NBA draft rule requiring age 20 impact the NCAA?

It would favor schools like Duke, Kentucky and Kansas — the elite programs that elite players attend — because they’d retain NBA-bound stars for an extra year, more than doubling their value. For the record, one-and-doners averaged just six-plus per year between 2006 and 2011, and we’re expecting little more than a dozen this year.

Q: Wouldn’t retaining young stars in college for an extra year dramatically improve NCAA competition?

Yes, but competition would be more unbalanced, and it wouldn’t impact attendance because fans support their universities regardless of the players.

Q: Should the NCAA copy the NBA’s 24-second clock?

That raises the question of why the NCAA should feel obliged to copy NBA rules when, with more than 4,200 scholarship players on 351 Division I teams, only a tiny percentage make an NBA roster in a given year. New rules are often formulated just for the chosen few.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com.