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Let me start by apologizing to you, the reader, and to Robert. Baseball words have been lacking this year. In my defense, I've been doing things that no smart human is supposed to have been doing over the last six months. Car prices skyrocketing? Let's buy two! Home prices skyrocketing? Great time to buy a new house!
The first four months of 2022 have been filled with laughter trying to fight back tears. I may write a movie about the misadventures of my wife and I in this first quarter.
All the while, the Illini baseball squad was in action.And to be honest, they were not great through the non-conference portion of the schedule as they played to an 8-10 record in the first five weeks of the season. In all fairness, the squad was hit with Covid right at the outset of the schedule and there were some off-the-field issues to deal with as well.
When the Big 10 slate rolled around in late March, however, the Illini turned the tables on the rest of the conference. At the moment, Dan Hartleb's Illini Nine are 26-19 - a season-high seven games over .500 - and 12-6 in the Big 10, which puts them in a tie for third with those hated Iowa Hawkeyes. Maryland (12-4) currently sits second and Rutgers paces the league at 15-4. Congratulations are in order for Coach Hartleb, who picked up his 500th win last weekend against Miami (Ohio).
What's behind the success in Big 10 play? An offense that can get scary hot (see 19 runs against No. 24 Maryland) and pitching that has found a groove behind ace Cole Kirscheiper.
The offense has scored 155 runs (8.6 runs per game) in Big 10 play, second only to Rutgers. Adam Christ's offense is hitting .315 - tops in the conference.
Leading the way are some familiar faces. Cam McDonald, a three-year starter since setting foot on campus in 2018, has found his old form. After leading the Illini with 34 RBIs as a freshman, McDonald struggled last year as a Covid sophomore. He finished the year with a .249 batting average and 27 RBIs, but there was a bright spot: an 11-game on-base streak to end the year.
McDonald has continued streaking this year. After going hitless in the Illini's first two games against Kansas to open the year, McDonald responded by ripping off a 23-game hitting streak. That was followed by a rough four-game stretch in which he went 1-for-15 over four games and then right back on a 13-game hitting streak. All told the junior outfielder from Ladd, Ill. has hit safely in 38 of the Illini's 45 games.
McDonald is hitting .416 in conference play. Just one point behind is last year's Big 10 batting champion, Soph. 1B Justin Janas at .415
After hitting .391 a year ago in 42 Big 10 games, Janas is somehow raising the bar and is now hitting .415 in conference play! It's eerily reminiscent of another sweet-swinging Illini lefty, Justin Parr. Who led the Big 10 in hitting as a sophomore and then did it again as a senior by hitting .398 and earning Big 10 Player of the Year honors. Janas' power numbers aren't quite where they need to be yet, but he still finds the barrel.
More bases loaded thunder as Justin Janas hits this ball to the deepest part of the park for a bases-clearing triple, the opposing pitchers have been pitching to him differently all weekend as he’s such a tough out@IlliniBaseball jumps back on top, 5-4, heading B4 pic.twitter.com/6yvoKiRpId— Patrick Ebert (@PatrickEbert44) March 6, 2022
And if you're wondering why teams are pitching to him, look no further than Covid Jr. catcher Jacob Campbell. You may recall that Campbell, a Wisconsin native, came to Chambana with high expectations. After all, he'd been drafted by the Chicago Cubs in the 36th round of the 2018 MLB Draft. Perfect Game ranked as the No. 130 player in the country. MLB.com ranked him as the No. 154 prospect in the 2018 draft. Baseball America ranked as the No. 25 freshman in the country.
Defensively, Campbell and his rocket right arm were ready from the jump and it earned him playing time as a freshman - 33 games, including 30 starts. But the bat struggled mightily as Campbell hit just .196 in 97 at-bats. Slowly but surely the bat has rebounded. Campbell split time with JUCO transfer Ryan Hampe a year ago and hit .299 with 6 doubles, 6 home runs and 28 RBIs. The bat has finally caught up, especially in Big 10 play. Campbell is hitting .333 with 5 doubles, 4 home runs and 22 RBIs in Big 10 play. In fact, he's homered in each of the Illini's last four Big 10 games.
Campbell is also playing a big part defensively. He's thrown out 11 of the 26 base runners trying to steal against him. And the man frequently on the receiving side of those throws is Soph. SS Cal Hezja He's no stranger to the highlight reel either. Like Campbell, Hezja is an underclassmen struggling with the bat, but the glove is present and accounted for. See below.
As for the pitching, it's been a rough spot. Friday night starter Cole Kirschsieper (Soph. LHP) has picked up right where he left off with Team USA last summer. He's 2-1 with a 3.24 ERA in Big 10 play and hasn't allowed three or more runs in in five of his six starts!
The rest of the staff, however, has struggled. Fellow starters Riley Gowens and Jack Crowder have shown flashes of real dominance, but have been inconsistent. The bullpen has a brightspot in Jr. RHP Ty Rybarczyk and his 2.81 ERA in nine appearances, but again inconsistency has plagued the rest of the bullpen. All told, the Illini hurlers have pitched to a 5.40 ERA in conference play. On the bright side, Mark Allen's rotation gave up just three runs in 27 innings as the Illini swept Miami (Ohio) last weekend.
So where does this leave us? Nebraska (19-27, 7-11) comes to town this weekend for the last home series. Get out and enjoy fireworks and the Bleacher Bum BBQ on Friday night!!! The Cornhuskers are in danger of being eliminated from the conference tournament, which they host in Omaha. Then there's a season-ending trip to Penn State (23-21, 10-8), which is currently tied for fifth with Michigan and seeking to solidify a berth in the Big 10 tournament. The Nittany Lions haven't made the BTT since 2012.
For their part, the Illini need to do two things to keep the season alive. First, they need to win these next two series to ensure a high seed in the conference tourney and then they are going to need to win the Big 10 tourney in order to make the dance, a daunting, but not impossible task in a year where everybody seems pretty even.