Series Preview: Illinois Fighting Illini

No. 24 Maryland will take on the Fighting Illini in Champaign, Illinois this week, looking to further improve its conference record with about a month left to go in the regular season.

With a 7-2 record in the Big 10, the Terps are currently in third place, only trailing Rutgers and Illinois, meaning the outcome of this series could go a long way toward final seeding in the conference tournament.

Last time out on Tuesday, Maryland went the distance with Towson, defeating the Tigers, 4-3, in 10 innings. Bobby Zmarzlak continued to play the hero for the Terps, hitting a go-ahead solo home run in the extra frame. David Falco Jr. shut the door in the bottom of the inning, securing Maryland’s 30th victory of the season.

To say Zmarzlak is entering this weekend on a hot streak would be an understatement. In his last five games, the junior is batting .474 with four home runs and nine RBI. His efforts were rewarded on Tuesday when he was named Big 10 Player of the Week.

Kevin Keister has also continued to produce at the plate, driving in three runs on Sunday against Ohio State and another versus Towson on Tuesday. After a slow start to the season, Keister has upped his batting average to .316, good for fourth best on the team.

On the mound this past weekend, Jason Savacool had another solid outing, striking out seven Buckeyes and only allowing five total baserunners in seven innings. To this point, Savacool ranks first in the Big 10 in ERA (2.39), innings pitched (64) and strikeouts (76).

Illinois (19-15)

Last Season

Illinois’ 2021 season was the definition of “middle of the pack,” finishing their conference-only schedule with a 22-22 record and in seventh place in the Big 10. It was night and day when looking at batting versus pitching with this team. The Illini offense hit .278 last season, good for second best in the conference. On the mound however, the Illinois pitching staff posted a 6.44 ERA, second worst in the conference. With no Big 10 Ten tournament last year, Illinois was left without a bid for the 2021 NCAA Tournament.

This Season

The number 15 in the loss column for this team is a bit deceiving, with thirteen of Illinois’ losses coming in non-conference games. At 10-2, Illinois is currently positioned in second place in the Big 10 standings, just one and a half games ahead of the third place Terps. Despite a loss to Indiana State on Tuesday, the Illini will enter this series with just as much momentum as Maryland, winning six of their last seven games, including a sweep of Northwestern last weekend.

Hitters to Watch

Cam McDonald has undoubtedly been the leader of this Illinois lineup. His .361 batting average ranks eighth-best in the Big 10. He also leads the team in hits, home runs and RBI. McDonald by himself will make this Illinois lineup a formidable challenge for the Maryland pitching staff.

Branden Comia has also been excellent for this Illinois offense. His .328 batting average, five home runs and 32 runs driven in are all second on the team only to McDonald. Danny Doligale rounds out Illinois’ trio of hitters batting over .300 that Maryland will have to contend with this weekend.

Pitchers to Watch

Cole Kirschsieper has been fantastic as a starter for the Illini this season, posting a 2.75 ERA and getting 57 strikeouts, eighth best in the Big 10, in 52 1/3 innings. In his last start versus Northwestern, the sophomore struck out seven Wildcats in five innings and gave up only one run, leading Illinois to a win.

After a tough start to the season, Riley Gowens has shown that he deserves to be in this Illinois weekend rotation. Over his past two starts, Gowens has allowed just two runs and struck out twelve over thirteen innings in wins over Iowa and Northwestern.

Probable Starting Pitcher Matchups

Friday, 9:00 p.m. ET

Jr. RHP Nick Dean (3-1, 3.94 ERA) vs. So. LHP Cole Kirschsieper (4-2, 2.75 ERA)

Nick Dean will take the mound for Maryland on Friday night coming off a start against Ohio State with some mixed results. Last time out he gave the Terps six innings of work, allowing four runs in the process. With an ERA currently sitting at 3.94, he will look to bounce back and prove why he is Rob Vaughn’s Friday starter.

It will be Cole Kirschsieper on the mound for Illinois opposite Dean. His 2.75 ERA ranks fourth best in the conference. He also leads this Illini pitching staff in innings as well as strikeouts. Last time out, Kirschsieper put together a solid outing in a win versus Northwestern, giving up just one run and striking out seven in five innings pitched.

Saturday, 8:00 p.m. ET

Jr. LHP Ryan Ramsey (7-0, 2.59 ERA) vs. So. RHP Jack Crowder (2-1, 6.59 ERA)

Ryan Ramsey will pitch Saturday for the Terps, coming off an uncharacteristic outing last weekend. In 4 1/3 innings against Ohio State, the Maryland southpaw gave up three runs, only striking out two Buckeyes and allowing six hits. That start still does not take away from the incredible season Ramsey is having. His seven wins are best in the Big 10. His 2.59 ERA, .186 opposing batting average and 55 2/3 innings pitched are all good for top five in the conference as well.

Jack Crowder will get the nod for Illinois on Saturday. It was a rough beginning to the season for the sophomore. After a solid first start of the season, he was only able to make it through five innings once and allowed 17 runs in his next four starts. He will have some momentum going into this weekend though as in his last outing against Northwestern he gave Illinois five quality innings, only allowing two runs and striking out eight.

Sunday, 2:00 p.m. ET

So. RHP Jason Savacool (6-2, 2.39 ERA) vs. So. RHP Riley Gowens (4-1, 3.97 ERA)

Jason Savacool will get the ball in the series finale on Sunday, and there just isn’t much left to say with regards to how fantastic his pitching has been this season. He currently leads the Big 10 in ERA, innings pitched and strikeouts. His six wins and .190 opposing batting average are also ranked top-five in the conference. His dominance over opposing lineups has solidified a Maryland weekend rotation that stacks up with the best in the country.

On the other side, Riley Gowens will get the start for the Illini. It has been an up and down season for Gowens, going back and forth between fantastic outings and starts where he can’t seem to find a rhythm. He has put together two solid starts in his past two outings, going thirteen combined innings and only allowing two runs, bringing his season ERA back down to 3.97.