Tate | Time for football, basketball to catch up to other UI teams

Tate | Time for football, basketball to catch up to other UI teams

As is their nature, Illini athletic teams seem proficient in handling the small balls of spring as opposed to the larger, more valued balls of autumn and winter.

Come on, football and basketball, it's time to catch up.

Both men and women squads of golf and tennis have done their job so far, all four qualifying for the NCAA postseason play.

And Tyra Perry's 36-win softballers, fresh from a 6-2 home victory over Nebraska on Saturday, are poised for Big Ten tournament action as they carry an 11-for-12 winning streak into today's regular-season finale against the Cornhuskers.

In a sport dominated at the top by "unhittable" hurlers, Perry continues to get the most out of her charges without the benefit of a blinding ace.

Postseason hopes alive

Which brings us to Illini baseball. They sold about 1,000 beers Friday night in a perfect evening at Illinois Field ... perfect except that the Illini couldn't manage a threat in the last three innings of a 6-5 loss to Ohio State.

Dan Hartleb's gang corrected that oversight Saturday, rallying from a 3-0 deficit to prevail 11-3 via a 13-hit salvo featuring homers by Bren Spillane (his 17th) and Ben Troike.

"It's a mental thing and we've been pressing in recent weeks," said Hartleb, "and Friday we swung at too many pitches out of the zone. (Saturday) we had more quality at-bats. We counted just seven swings at bad balls."

Illinois scored all 11 runs between the fourth and eighth innings, reaching 11-6 in the Big Ten and gaining renewed confidence ahead of today's 11 a.m. contest (game time was moved up).

This is a solid UI team, one deserving a berth in both the Big Ten tournament (eight teams qualify) and NCAA play, but it is not quite living up to earlier projections.

Hopes were built around an early-March sweep of UCLA, Arizona and Washington in Minneapolis and a late-March sweep of Northwestern, these triumphs leading to a ranking in the Top 25 and with first baseman Bren Spillane being named Midseason National Player of the Year.

Still work to do

Dating to an 11-7 loss to Valparaiso April 17, the Illini have won four times in 11 tries. So this is a story of the unpredictability of baseball.

— Prize Michigan recruit Luke Shilling and redshirted 2016 standout Doug Hayes — he was 6-5 that spring with a nine-inning one-hitter against Penn State‚ were once projected as leaders of the 2018 pitching rotation. Shilling’s ability to throw in the mid-90s may see him drafted even though he isn’t playing this season.

— While Hartleb brought in promising freshmen pitchers a year ago, he has turned to two transfers, Quinn Snarskis of St. Joseph’s College and lefty Andy Fisher of Eastern Illinois, as weekend starters. Snarskis was knocked around in the third inning Saturday but settled down to go seven effective innings, bringing his record to 5-1.

— A sprained ankle caused Spillane to miss three games against Rutgers and Valparaiso and, with opposing pitchers treating him with care, his right-field bomb Saturday was just his third homer in the last 18 games ... while his batting average remains a still-impressive .423.

— Juniors Jack Yalowitz, Doran Turchin and Zac Taylor projected speed, power and experience in a crack UI outfield, with Yalowitz coming off an All-Big Ten season in which he batted .335 overall and slugged seven homers in 2017 conference play. But prior to Tuesday’s 9-1 rout of Southern Illinois, the 39-game stats showed those three batting .227, .234 and .218, respectively. Since then, Turchin has made significant gains, but Yalowitz is barely hovering over .200 and has been dropped to the ninth spot in the batting order.

Refuting my theme of inconsistency, sophomores Troike and Michael Massey have been remarkably steady at short and second, both batting over .300. They are a pitcher’s best friend.

Hartleb has an ace in the hole today. Fireballer Joey Gerber, showing 36 strikeouts in 21 1/3 innings, is fresh and should be ready for two or three innings of relief. It’ll be Ty Weber’s job to set him up with at least six solid frames.

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