Series Preview: Illinois Fighting Illini

The red-hot Maryland Terrapins (19-13) look to continue their winning ways this weekend as they head to Champaign, Illinois, to take on a Fighting Illini squad (15-16) looking to get back in the win column.

Coming off a three-game sweep of Minnesota, the Terps are in the midst of a historic six-game win streak, matching their longest Big Ten winning streak in program history. Led by a pair of excellent pitching performances over the weekend coupled with timely hitting, Maryland outscored the Golden Gophers 22-10 last weekend at Bob “Turtle” Smith Stadium. 

The Terps have been swinging the bat great as of late. At the plate, Freshman Matt Shaw led the way with six hits last weekend while Chris Alleyne extended his season-best hitting streak to eight games. Right-hander Nick Dean went seven strong innings, allowing just one earned run and striking out eight while earning his second win of the season last Friday. Freshman phenom Jason Savacool went six innings, allowing two runs on six hits in Saturday’s walk-off win. Star shortstop Ben Cowles will look to add to his Big Ten-leading 13 home runs this weekend and first baseman Maxwell Costes heads into Friday’s contest with a five-game hit streak.

Winners of five of their last seven, the Fighting Illini were originally slated to meet Northwestern and No. 22 Michigan twice each in last weekend’s pod series hosted by Northwestern. However, the Wildcats were forced to pause team activities due to health and safety concerns within the program, leaving Illinois to face Michigan four times instead of the originally scheduled two. Illinois held their own with the Wolverines, salvaging a split but allowing a combined 37 runs in the two losses. 

Opening pitch of the three-game series is set for Friday at 7:00 p.m. on Big Ten Network Plus, while game two will be Saturday at 5:00 p.m. on Big Ten Network Plus. The series finale is set to begin at noon on Sunday on the Big Ten Network.

Illinois Fighting Illini (15-16)

Last Season:

The Illini were off to a great start last season, scoring a pair of top-25 victories as well as securing a road win against Coastal Carolina. The team finished the abbreviated season with an 8-5 record and played multiple collegiate baseball powerhouses including top-ranked West Virginia, Oklahoma State and Texas A&M. Infielder Branden Comia led the team with a .426 average and a 1.228 OPS in 13 games. On the mound, Illinois saw Freshman Cole Kirschsieper finish 3-0 with a 1.35 ERA. 

This season:

Illinois got off to a rocky start this season, dropping their first three to No. 23 Ohio State. However, they rebounded with four straight wins. This team lives and dies with a high-powered offense. If Maryland can silence the Illini’s bats, it could be a long weekend for Illinois. Manager Dan Hartleb’s club tends to be streaky — they have a pair of four-game win streaks and a trio of three-game losing streaks. 

Hitters to watch:

Senior Jackson Raper leads the Fighting Illini offense with ten home runs and 38 RBI along with a .350 average. Raper is on the conference’s top ten leaderboard in each of those categories. He became the first Illini since 2013 to hit for the cycle, as he did so in game one of Sunday’s doubleheader against Michigan. First baseman Kellen Sarver has also seen recent success at the plate, tallying at least one RBI in ten of his last 11 contests while hitting .385/.378/.718 with four home runs over that stretch. Comia picked up where he left off last season and leads the Big Ten with a sparkling .497 OBP along with ranking sixth in the conference in hits (40) and fifth in average (.357). As a team, the Illini rank top five in the Big Ten in batting average, hits, runs and OBP. What the Illini lack on the hill they make up for at the plate.

Pitchers to watch:

Illinois has not fared as well on the mound, as the team sports a collective 7.30 ERA. Friday’s starter Andrew Hoffmann has seen the most success on the hill for the Illini this year, but more on him in a minute. The pitching staff has given up at least 11 runs in half of their losses, and gave up a season-high 19 runs in only seven innings on Sunday.

Starting pitching matchups:

Friday: RHP Nick Dean (2-0, 3.51 ERA) vs. RHP Andrew Hoffmann (1-0, 3.96 ERA)

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Dean: The sophomore right-hander has been fabulous on the mound this season, allowing only more than three earned runs once in six outings. Dean is coming off a seven-inning start where he gave up just one earned run and one walk against Minnesota. The righty has outstanding control, walking only six batters in 33 1/3 innings this season. The Terps have been victorious in each of his last five starts. 

Hoffmann: As mentioned before, if you’re looking for Illinois’s ace, you’ve found him. A reliable arm on a starting staff that has struggled for much of this season, Hoffmann is tied for the team lead in innings and has a WHIP just above one. Opponents are hitting a mere .217 off Hoffmann, eighth-best in the conference. The sophomore has made seven starts in 2021, with his most recent on Saturday in a no-decision against Michigan. He limited the Wolverines to three earned runs on five hits in 5 1/3 innings. Earlier this year, the John A. Logan Community College transfer was rated the 14th-ranked MLB draft prospect in the Big Ten by D1Baseball.

Saturday: RHP Jason Savacool (5-1, 5.33 ERA) vs. LHP Nathan Lavender (5-1, 4.46 ERA)

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Savacool: The freshman had a nice bounce-back outing Saturday in the win versus Minnesota, going six innings and allowing just two earned runs on six hits. After an excellent start to the year that featured a complete-game victory, Savacool cooled down and gave up at least four earned runs in four of his next five starts. The New York native has done a nice job limiting the home run ball and does not tire easily, as his pitch count typically sits in the nineties. The Terps have won all but one of his nine starts this year.

Lavender: Lavender may not have the best stuff on the Illini roster, but he sure knows how to rack up wins. The left-hander has five wins in as many starts, although he has struggled as of late. The Hudson, Illinois native has given up at least four earned runs in three of his past four outings, including being hit by the Wolverines for five earned runs on seven hits Saturday night. The rough start raised his ERA from 3.55 to 4.46. The lefty ranks eighth in the Big Ten with 57 strikeouts. Lavender has an excellent strikeout to walk ratio of 5:1 and will look to get Maryland hitters to chase early in the count. The left-hander missed last season with an injury but has stayed healthy this year.

Sunday: RHP Sean Burke (2-3, 4.24 ERA) vs. RHP Riley Gowens (1-2, 5.14 ERA)

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Burke: The hard-throwing right hander is slated to take the hill for the Terps in the series finale. While Burke has not worked over six innings this season, he has reached double-digit strikeouts three times this season, including a career-high 13 in his season debut against Michigan State. Burke ranks third in the nation in strikeouts per nine (14.68) but is coming off his shortest outing of the year on Sunday, a scoreless appearance over three innings that included only two strikeouts. Burke is comfortable with high pitch counts and threw a season-high 117 pitches at Iowa in late April. The right hander’s electric stuff speaks for itself: he ranks No. 44 overall in Baseball America’s latest MLB Draft rankings.

Gowens: The right-handed freshman finally made his collegiate debut on the mound this season after being sidelined for two years with injuries. He has swing-and-miss stuff, striking out at least six in four outings in 2021. He has done a nice job keeping runners off the base paths and has allowed less than one hit per inning this season. Gowens’s ERA has hovered around six all season, but the bright spot was his seven no-hit innings against Purdue back in late April, earning him Big Ten Pitcher of the Week honors. He’ll look to replicate that success against a tough Terps lineup.