Getting Back On Track: Baseball Hosts Illinois

Last weekend was a disaster. We came in tied for first place with high hopes, but left East Lansing after being swept by the Spartans down three games with six to play. That puts our chances at ending our 102 year Big Ten championship drought in serious jeopardy. There is hope, however, if you can stomach supporting one team this weekend:

The Indiana Hoosiers

Indiana was one of the best teams in the Big ten through the early part of the season and they have played possibly the toughest schedule of any Big Ten team. They would have championship aspirations of their own had they not gotten swept by Minnesota and Purdue in consecutive weekends. Now they are fighting just to make the Big Ten Tournament. After starting 25-10 they have won just two of their last 11 games, both against Northwestern last week. Since the Spartans finish against the Wildcats at home (where they are undefeated in Big Ten play) this is our last great chance to make up some ground.

Of course, it means nothing if we cannot sweep Illinois at home this weekend. I say sweep because anything less likely eliminates us from the conference title race anyway. Our best bet is to sweep Illinois and Iowa and hope that MSU stumbles in there games (and Minnesota twice).

The other key thing to consider is the Big Ten Tournament, which will likely decide the conference's lone NCAA bid. The top two teams in the conference receive a first round bye, which is critical because it then takes just three straight wins to get the NCAA bid and two to get into the champions ship round. Even one victory avoids a lot of the hassle of fighting through the loser's bracket. Here are the current Big Ten standings:

STANDINGS

Big 10 Win

Big 10 Loss

Big 10 %

Games Back

Overall Win

Overall Loss

Overall %

Last 10

Streak

Next Game

Michigan State

13

5

0.722

--

31

15

0.674

7-3

W-1

at Indiana (5/13)

Minnesota

11

7

0.611

2

19

18

0.514

7-3

W-3

at Penn State (5/13)

Purdue

10

8

0.556

3

31

16

0.660

6-4

W-1

Illinois (5/13)

Ohio State

10

8

0.556

3

22

22

0.500

6-4

W-1

Iowa (5/13)

Illinois

10

8

0.556

3

20

24

0.455

7-3

W-1

at Purdue (5/13)

Penn State

8

10

0.444

5

28

18

0.609

5-5

W-2

Minnesota (5/13)

Indiana

8

10

0.444

5

27

21

0.563

2-8

L-1

Michigan State (5/13)

Iowa

7

11

0.389

6

18

27

0.400

3-7

W-1

at Ohio State (5/13)

Northwestern

7

11

0.389

6

17

27

0.386

5-5

W-2

Michigan (5/13)

Michigan

6

12

0.333

7

15

33

0.313

2-8

L-5

at Northwestern (5/13)

Right now we have the three seed, but it is in flux as we haven't played Illinois yet. We should have the tiebreaker over Ohio State since we have a better overall record (they are the one team we don't play this year). Minnesota and Michigan State own the tiebreakers over us since they won the respective series against Purdue, so we have to beat them by a clear game.

As for our NCAA chances, they are pretty slim unless we win the auto-bid. Yesterday's win over Ball State helps, but we like have to win all of the remaining seven regular season games and at least two in the Big Ten Tournament to even have a chance at an at large. That would put us at an impressive 40 wins (when our only NCAA team ever was an at large with 36 wins in a 48-team field), breaking the school record by three. Still, our RPI sucks.

On to Illinois this weekend: The most important thing is to at least win the series and gain the tiebreaker over the Fighting Illini. We're 5-1 at home in big Ten play, losing only to Michigan in a game we choked away leading by 4 in the 8th. After beating Ball State yesterday we're 10-2 overall at home, so I like our chance as we wind down the life of Lambert Field.

The Illini have won their last three series by 2-1 marks over Michigan State, Ohio State, and Northwestern, so they are performing well against the top of the league. Their starting pitching, for lack of a better word, sucks though. John Anders (5-6, 4.09 ERA in 13 starts), Kevin Johnson (2-5, 4.72 ERA in 12 starts), and Corey Kimes (3-4, 5.52 ERA in 11 starts) is not the group I want to send out against our potent lineup. Michigan State did a good job of keeping us at bay last week, but they have the top pitching staff in the league.

One thing we don't want is to get to the ninth while trailing. Illinois has possibly the best closer in the Big Ten in Wes Braun (0.56 ERA, 1-0, 5 saves in 16 appearances). He has given up just eight hits and one earned run in 16 innings of work. Will Strack (3-1, 2.97 ERA in 17 appearances) is also a quality reliever. The key will be to get on the starters early. They like to give up runs, but Illinois can protect a lead.

At the plate Justin Parr is batting .346 with 23 RBI. Brandon Hohl hits better than .300 with four homers and 32 RBI as their best run producer. Illinois likes the long ball with 20 as a team, and we like to give up the long ball. We have given up 29 homers on the year, but it seems like we've given up a lot more of late.

Right now we're hurting because Brad Schreiber (3.80 ERA, 4-0) can't pitch because of a shoulder injury. He is possibly our best starter, but he hasn't thrown in some time. Robert Ramer and Calvin Gunter are filling in, but we could really use Schreiber, especially if Matt Morgan can get back on track. I like Joe Haase as a #2 guy right now, but he would be a great Sunday starter if we could get Schreiber back. Angelo Cianfrocco's return to the lineup has been nice, and he has even thrown a few innings of late.

I like our chances this weekend because we've been pretty good at home. Our two losses were by a run each, one to a very good Illinois State team and the other due to a bullpen collapse. Minnesota has a tough trip to Penn State this weekend, while Michigan State is, as mentioned, at Indiana. All we can do is take care of our business and hope for some help from the Golden Gophers and Hoosiers.

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