Instead of previewing the series as I did with Minnesota, I thought it would be nice to get some information straight from Illinois. With that said, I chose to interview Thomas Nelshoppen from Illinois Baseball Report, a blog specifically dedicated to Illini Baseball. I truly appreciated his time and insight with regard to the Illinois baseball team, and I hope you all will as well. I also answered some of his questions which can be seen here.
Behind the Plate: Last weekend’s starters came as a bit of a surprise with neither Phil Haig, Ben Reeser (each with 5 starts on the year) or last year’s #1 Kevin Manson (3rd-team All Big-Ten) getting a start. Instead, Illinois went with Lee Zerrusen (only 1 start prior to getting the nod last Friday), freshman Will Strack (only 2 starts prior to Saturday), and freshman Bryan Roberts (only 2 starts prior to Sunday). Obviously the decision-making now looks brilliant as the starters combined to give up only 4 earned runs for the weekend, but can you talk about the reasoning behind these pitching decisions?
Illinois Baseball Report: It's hard to get anything official about these kinds of decisions but my guess is that it's a combination of things.
Most likely, Coach Hartleb was resting a couple tired arms that needed a break. Also, I think Hartleb simply is going with the pitcher with the hot hand right now. Bryan Roberts pitched seven scoreless innings in his previous appearance.
Like you said, you can't argue with his decisions.
BTP: As evidenced by the first question, Illinois obviously has several very capable starters who could take the ball on any given day. That being said, what 3 pitchers do you see getting the nod to start this weekend? Can you tell IU fans a little about each of them?
IBR: I'm pretty sure Phil Haig [pictured on right] will be Illinois' Friday night starter. I remember seeing Haig pitch the last game of the regular season in 2008. He pitched a shutout against a pretty potent Purdue offense. That success has carried over into 2009. A 6'3 lefty, he is quite amazing to watch and his stats (3-0, 1.67 ERA) reflect his effectiveness. He's not a strikeout pitcher but just simply gets the job done.
My guess is Ben Reeser will probably be on the mound Saturday or Sunday. Reeser, who pitched out of the pen for the Illini in 2008, really came in to his own last summer playing for the Fayetteville Swampdogs in the Coastal Plain League. Once he got back to the Illini this spring, his success just continued. Reeser is a dominating righty... he has 29 strikeouts in 31+ innings.
As for the third pitcher, your guess is as good as mine. Possibly Aaron Martin who Hartleb has used as a spot starter. It could also be Lee Zerrusen who is starting to come into his own or either of our talented freshman hurlers, Will Strack or Bryan Roberts. If I had my guess, I’d go with Strack who was practically unhittable against MSU last weekend (complete game 4 hit shutout).
BTP: The Illini have logged a conference-leading 42 steals on the year (compared to IU’s 16). However, IU has preseason All-American Josh Phegley behind the plate. How do you see this matchup playing out? Do you think the Illini speedsters will be deterred with Phegley behind the plate, or can we expect Illinois to be very aggressive on the basepaths this weekend?
IBR: I doubt Illinois will change their offense too much though it will be interesting to see Illinois challenge Phegley.
Illinois is pretty diverse when it comes to the stolen base. Seven Illini have at least three stolen bases and every starter has at least one. So you know the stealing threat is always there. Expect to see the Hoosier hurlers throwing to first a lot to keep the runners close.
The stolen bases are a big component to the Illini's baserunning game plan but not the only one. They know how to effectively use the bunt, hit and run... just do what it takes to move the runner along and manufacture runs.
BTP: With a 17-5 record and a #26 ranking in the most recent Collegiate Baseball Division I Poll, what has been the key to success for the Illini so far this year?
IBR: Well, pitching has been obvious component so far this season. They are second in the conference with a 4.12 ERA. Take away that particular nastiness against LSU (the one game they won) when they scored 22 runs against us, it would be a whole lot lower. While we all expected some success from Haig, Reeser and Aaron Martin, it's been a pleasant surprise to see newcomers like Will Strack and Bryan Roberts do so well. And while some of their ERAs may not show it due to maybe one bad outing, our bullpen has really come through.
What some might hear much about is Illinois' fielding. Until recently, it was the best in the conference and we're still third. Behind the plate, Aaron Johnson adds to his offensive value by showing his defensive skills. As a team, Illinois has only been stolen on 13 times this year (best in the conference).
Illinois continues to stand with the best of them when it comes to their sticks. Right now, Illinois is hitting .324 (third best in the Big Ten). Even Illinois' power is up from previous years, too. We have Willie Argo to thank for that. He now leads the team with five homeruns.
But most of all, it's a combination of timely pitching and hitting, consistent baseball and playing the fundamentals. When Illinois doesn't make mistakes, they win. And they haven't been making as many mistakes.
BTP: From an offensive standpoint, what player or players has been instrumental to Illinois’ early season success? Who should the Hoosier hurlers look out for?
Seriously, it's almost seemed to work out that each player in the lineup takes their turn being the offensive hero. From the firebrand leadoff hitter Joe Bonadonna (team leading 12 steals) all the way down to the ninth place hitter Josh Parr who in his college debut went 4-4 and garnered the Big Ten Co-Player of the Week. That said, I'll mention a few others with the risk of leaving someone out.
At 5'8", shortstop Brandon Wikoff [pictured on right] is not your stereotypical third place hitter. He defies that stereotype every game. At this point in the season, he's leading the Illini in hitting (.388), runs (22) and total bases (46). He's not afraid to steal a base either (5). Outfielder Casey McMurray has enjoyed a 16 game hitting streak early this season. I mentioned catcher Aaron Johnson's defensive skills earlier. His clutch hitting has helped Illinois tremendously. And I haven't gotten to our cleanup hitter Dominic Altobelli who's hitting #4 for a reason (.333, 25 rbis).
Finally, Illinois' 8th place hitter and RF/DH Willie Argo, like Parr, is a freshman. He made news when he hit homeruns in his first three at-bats in his college debut. He's a fantastic athlete and I'm expecting a lot of good things from him in the future.
BTP: What does Illinois need to do to walk away with a series win against IU this weekend? On the other hand, what weaknesses could help the Hoosiers head home on Sunday with their first conference series win of the year?
IBR: Their pitching needs to stay as solid as it’s been all season. If they can do that, our offense can do the rest. Also, I think we do best at 4-3 or 3-0 games as opposed to slugfests. So if the Illini pitching could keep Phegley and Dickerson from hitting the ball out of Illinois Field, that would help.
As I said earlier, the team just needs to play fundamental baseball and stay away from making the costly mistake in key situations.
BTP: Where do you see the Illini finishing in the Big Ten this year?
IBR: Quite honestly, better than I thought at the beginning of the year. I had originally placed them at maybe fourth place in the conference but I think they have different ideas. They are playing with a definite air of confidence.
The success of the previously unknown newcomers like Parr, Argo, Strack and Roberts has really changed people's perception of the team. Are they good enough to crack the top one or two spot in the conference? Can they win the conference tournament? Time will tell but I certainly think they have a chance.