Momentum on their side, Illini aim to fix Big Ten woes

Momentum on their side, Illini aim to fix Big Ten woes

CHAMPAIGN — The Illinois baseball team didn't forget about its early March loss to Coastal Carolina ahead of this week's two-game return series at Illinois Field.

The Chanticleers thumped the Illini on March 1 in the matchup of ranked teams in Conway, S.C. They got to Illinois ace Andy Fisher early and just piled on as the game progressed (while keeping the Illini bats in check) for an 11-3 win.

Illinois, back out of the top 25 after a four-game losing streak, had something to prove this week when it hosted No. 19 Coastal Carolina. The Illini proved it with a two-game sweep, getting back on track after a rough end to March ahead of their three-game series against Maryland set to start at 6 p.m. today at Illinois Field.

"We didn't think Coastal was better than us necessarily," Illinois senior right fielder Jack Yalowitz said. "We knew we could compete with them. The last game didn't really show what kind of team we were, and we didn't get to showcase our players as much the last time we played them.

"It was nice for them to see what we're about, and we made a statement this week nationally. People are going to take note and see what kind of team we've got, what kind of pitching that we've got and that we're dangerous."

Illinois is in a different frame of mind in its return to Big Ten play against the Terrapins (13-14, 1-2 Big Ten). The Illini (19-8, 0-3) dropped their midweek game against a now 22-win Indiana State team last week before heading to Iowa for their Big Ten opener. Three consecutive losses — the last two by a combined three runs — followed against the Hawkeyes.

"We're coming in with a little bit of a swagger — a little more than we had last weekend after a tough midweek loss last week to a good Indiana State team," Illinois junior closer Garrett Acton said. "After a great run of wins (10 off 11 through most of March), we were a little bit defeated going into the weekend. ... We're going into the weekend with a lot of momentum, and I think we're going in with a lot of confidence, too. We've just proven we can beat anybody at our own place, and I think that's going to carry well into the weekend."

Yalowitz said the midweek sweep of Coastal Carolina was more about momentum than confidence. Illinois' confidence has never lagged. The Illini expect to compete with the best teams in the nation having been ranked among them multiple times already this season.

"It's good momentum against a good team, and that's important," Yalowitz said about taking down the Chanticleers. "That's what you need. Sometimes it takes just one game to get a team on a roll. We've had a really good year. It was one kind of slip-up of a week, and I think we're back on track."

The Illini were harder on themselves after losing the three-game series at Iowa than Illinois coach Dan Hartleb. Yalowitz said the team didn't have enough composed at-bats or work the count well enough. Hartleb pointed out his team outhit the Hawkeyes — a 26-22 advantage in fact — but that simply didn't turn into enough runs.

"Sometimes it just doesn't go your way where you push a run across or get a two-out hit," Hartleb said. "We hit a number of balls right at defenders in situations with runners in scoring position. You can't control that stuff.

"You just grind through it. Every day is not going to be perfect. There are going to be some tough losses, but you hope you have a bunch of great wins."

The two-game sweep of Coastal Carolina certainly qualifies under "great wins." This week's two wins make for five total against top 50 teams, according to the RPI, with the three-game sweep of Illinois State providing the others.

"That's one of the categories the selection committee looks at," Hartleb said. "It's important. I don't think you are a good team or can be a good team that plays at a high level unless you play good opponents. If you look at our schedule all year, we've played really top opponents. That's going to bode well for us as we get down the stretch and more toward tournament play. We'll have been there before."