Big Ten showdown

Big Ten showdown

CHAMPAIGN — Halfway through the Big Ten baseball race, Illinois has yet to put its ace on the mound for a conference game.

That will be the case again this weekend, with 2013 Big Ten Freshman of the Year Kevin Duchene continuing to rehab a strained pitching forearm that has sidelined the left-hander since mid-March.

Not that the Illini will get much sympathy from their next conference opponent. Indiana’s all-time saves leader, Ryan Halstead, suffered a season-ending knee injury in the team’s 10th game of the season. Then, the Hoosiers’ No. 2 starter and two-time Big Ten Pitcher of the Week, Kyle Hart, was lost for the year in mid-April with a torn elbow ligament.

Not that you’d notice the absences.

With either team.

When nationally ranked and 2013 College World Series qualifier Indiana visits Illinois Field for a three-game series starting Friday (6 p.m.), it will be a matchup of the Big Ten’s top two teams. And pitching is a major reason each finds itself at or near the top of the standings.

The first-place Hoosiers (26-11, 11-1 Big Ten) rank No. 1 in the league and 16th nationally in ERA at 2.48. The runner-up Illini (22-15, 9-3 Big Ten) stand third in the conference in ERA (3.08) and 44th in the nation.

It’s clear both teams, at least so far, have the pitching depth to withstand such significant personnel losses.

“Some guys that they depend on obviously are not there,” Illinois coach Dan Hartleb said of Indiana. “It means that some guys that had some opportunities that maybe they didn’t count on have stepped up and continued to improve.

“And that’s what you always hope as a coach, that some of the guys ... when their time comes, that they’re physically and mentally ready. And they’ve had some guys that have stepped up big for them.”

Among those who fit that description are sophomores Scott Effross and Christian Morris. The former has stepped into the big closer’s shoes of Halstead and leads the Big Ten in ERA (1.41) while ranking among the leaders in saves (5).

Meanwhile, Morris — who entered the year with two career starts — has limited opponents to one earned run per game in five of his last six starts.

And don’t overlook Brian Korte. In Hart’s absence, the senior left-hander has stepped out of the bullpen and produced a 0.79 ERA in his last two starts covering 11 1/3 innings.

Illinois counters with its best pitching staff in years — a staff that’s well on its way to breaking a 38-year-old program record for single-season ERA (3.43 in 1976).
And it’s not just the starting rotation of Drasen Johnson, John Kravetz and Ryan Castellanos that’s getting it done.

“I’ve heard other teams say that we have a very deep bullpen who come out, throw hard and get their job done,” Illini first baseman David Kerian said. “I just think that’s going to be a big part of this weekend is the bullpen.”

On paper, Illinois’ pitching staff faces a more formidable challenge. With the likes of 2013 All-Americans Kyle Schwarber and Dustin Demuth and 2013 Big Ten tournament and NCAA regional MVP Sam Travis, Indiana has a core of some of the most dangerous hitters in the college game.

“The middle of their lineup is probably as good as anybody’s lineup in the country,” Hartleb said.

By late Sunday afternoon, each of these Big Ten title hopefuls will know better how they stack up against each other. Will Indiana — which is ranked in all four of the major polls and as high as No. 13 — continue on its near-unbeatable conference roll? Will the Illini close the gap with a series victory or even pull off a sweep to take over the league lead with three Big Ten series remaining?

Either way, the stakes are about as high as they get at this stage of a Big Ten race.

“I don’t ever remember No. 1 and No. 2 in our ballpark right in the middle of the year,” Hartleb said, “but it’s going to be fun.”