Series Preview: Illinois Fighting Illini

Maryland returns to Big Ten action this weekend on the road against Illinois. After losing their second conference series last weekend to Indiana, the Terrapins will look to return to form against the Fighting Illini. On Wednesday, Maryland defeated in-state foe Towson to earn the Ripken Cup.

Maryland (30-13, 13-5 Big Ten) played around wild weather conditions last weekend in Bloomington. Friday night’s game was postponed in the third inning, quickly putting an end to Brian Shaffer’s start. The game resumed Saturday to commence a doubleheader, with the Terps dropping the first before evening the series at one behind freshman Tyler Blohm’s strong start. On Sunday, a rain delay midway through the game only allowed the rubber match to go 7 ½ innings due to a travel curfew, and the Terps fell to Indiana, 6-3.

Sophomore AJ Lee’s decisive solo home run in the eight inning on Wednesday was the third baseman’s sixth home run of the year. He continues to provide production from the bottom of the Terrapin lineup. Lee is one of five Maryland players with a batting average over .300 this season, along with  Zach Jancarski, Marty Costes, Brandon Gum and Danny Maynard.

Not only does the weather look more favorable this weekend in Illinois, but the Big Ten-leading Terps will face a team ranked 11th in the conference. Illinois (19-23, 5-10 Big Ten) has won just two conference series this season. However, the Illini did win their series last weekend against Minnesota after dropping the series opener, and then won a midweek game against Southern Illinois, giving them a three-game winning streak entering this weekend’s series.

Offensively, Illinois is led by three main players: Jack Yalowitz, Michael Massey and Pat McInerney. Yalowitz leads the team with a .339 batting average and 40 RBIs. The redshirt senior ranks fifth in the Big Ten in both RBIs and home runs (10). Massey, a freshman, leads the team with 57 hits, a mark that ranks eighth in the entire conference, to go with a .329 average and 10 doubles. McInerney is the power behind the Illini, hitting a team-high 12 home runs this season, a total that only ranks behind Iowa’s Jake Adams (16) in the Big Ten. As a team, Illinois ranks second in the conference in home runs (45), behind Indiana, but ranks in the lower third of the Big Ten with a .257 team average. 

While the Illini have held their own at the plate, their pitching has been their Achilles’ heel for much of the season. As a unit, Illinois’ ERA (5.65) is second-worst in the Big Ten, and the team has surrendered 264 runs this season, third-worst in the conference. The staff has struggled with control as well, walking the most batters of any Big Ten team (211) and ranking second in wild pitches (58). Ty Weber has been the one consistent starter this year, making 11 starts, while the rest of the Illinois rotation has been a revolving door. When the starters exit the game, the Illini struggle in the middle innings, as many of their relievers own ERAs north of five. However, they do boast a lockdown closer at the back end of their pen: Joey Gerber. The sophomore right-hander has made 23 appearances, all in relief, spanning 28 innings. He leads the team with seven saves and a 2.57 ERA, and with a 1-0 record is one of just three Illini pitchers not to suffer a loss this season. 

Maryland and Illinois squared off last season in College Park for a three-game set. While the Illini took two of three, all the games were decided by two runs or less. Prior to 2016, The Terps beat a fifth-ranked Illinois team, 2-1, in the 2015 Big Ten Tournament.

Starting Pitching Matchup

FRI 7:00 p.m. EST

Jr. RHP Brian Shaffer (5-2, 1.73 ERA) vs. Fr. RHP Ty Weber (2-5, 4.34 ERA)

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Brian Shaffer, per usual, will pitch Friday night for the Terps. His outing last weekend against Indiana was cut short due to rain, and he did not stay on the mound when the game resumed the following day. So, Shaffer only threw 38 pitches in two innings of work, allowing no runs on two hits. Even with the shortened outing, the junior still leads the Big Ten in ERA (1.73) and innings pitched (73), while also appearing in the top-five in opposing batting average and strikeouts.

None of Illinois’ weekend starters this year appeared against the Terps one year ago. Two of the three this year are freshman, starting Friday night with right-hander Ty Weber. His 4.34 ERA leads the team’s starters, and he is the only Illinois pitcher to start in each weekend series. While he does allow runs, his 66.1 innings pitched this season is second in the Big Ten, trailing only Shaffer. Last weekend against Minnesota, the freshman allowed five runs on 11 hits in six innings of work.

Starting Pitching Matchup

SAT 4:00 p.m. EST

Fr. LHP Tyler Blohm (8-3, 2.53) vs. Fr. RHP Cyrillo Watson (1-4, 6.35 ERA)


Freshman Tyler Blohm has been dominant since becoming the Terps’ Saturday starter. The southpaw pitched 6.1 innings last weekend against Indiana, allowing two earned runs on six hits. The performance was good enough to earn his Big Ten-leading eighth win of the season. He joins his teammate Shaffer in the top-five in the conference in opposing batting average this season. His strikeout total is nearly staying equal to his innings pitched, striking out 52 batters in 57 innings of work.

Cyrillo Watson joins Weber as a freshman weekend starter for the Illini. While he’ll share the rubber Saturday with fellow freshman Blohm, the two have posted vastly different seasons to date. Watson owns a lofty 6.35 ERA through seven starts and 15 total appearances. The right-hander is prone to being all over the plate, as his nine wild pitches this season ranks third-most in the Big Ten, and he also ranks in the top-10 in the conference in hit batters.

Starting Pitching Matchup

SUN 1:00 p.m. EST

Jr. RHP Taylor Bloom (5-2, 3.97) vs. Sr. RHP Matthew James (1-1, 5.35 ERA)


Taylor Bloom pitched well enough to earn the win last weekend in Sunday’s rubber match against Indiana, bit the Hoosier’s late grand slam followed by a rain delay and curfew-shortened game ensured he received a no-decision. The junior allowed just two runs over six innings, striking out seven batters. With the solid start, Bloom’s ERA is now back down below four, joining his fellow weekend starters. Last season against the Illini, Bloom pitched a six-hit, one-run complete game.

While freshmen fill the first two weekend starts for Illinois, Sunday starter Matthew James is a senior. He has only worked his way into the weekend rotation as of late, making a majority of his appearances this season out of the bullpen. The right-hander earned his first win of the season in the back-end of last Saturday’s doubleheader, allowing just one run over six innings against Minnesota. Despite the strong start last time out, James struggles to find the zone at times, walking nearly as many batters as he strikes out.