Michigan took both games in the midweek, beating Toledo by a score of 8-4 and Bowling Green State by a score of 8-5. I'm not going to get into either game too much as the midweek games are pretty meaningless from a long term perspective, but there were a few notable players and storylines worth recapping.
Eric Katzman was brilliant in relief of Matt Miller on Tuesday. Katzman went 5 innings, allowing just one hit and two walks to earn the win. It was great to see him get a solid long relief appearance and hopefully this builds his confidence when it comes to the weekend relief corps. He was mixing up pitches really well, and had some stretches of "effective wildness" that kept hitters off balance and rolling over pitches.
On offense, Ryan LaMarre kept his offensive tear rolling, knocking a 2-run homer in the first inning, his first long ball since returning from the injury. But not everyone enjoyed the LaMarre homer. Chris Berset, still feeling the "sting" of losing his 3-hole spot last weekend, came up on the next pitch to hit a solo home run of his own, the first back-to-back homers Michigan has had since February 2009.
John Lorenz also added on in the early innings to remind some of us that he's just as capable of producing in the 8-hole. Biondi also went 3/4.
This game was a bit more bothersome from an offensive perspective. For the most part, Michigan was kept off base for the first 5 innings. Biondi and Toth combined to produce a run in the first inning, and then the offense went into hibernation mode as Apthorpe chewed through our lineup.
Upon Apthorpe's exit, things picked up. Anthony Toth picked up his first career homer, and LaMarre and Berset both followed that up with hits. After a Crank hit by pitch, the Falcons made their only error of the game on a would be double play ball to end the inning. Instead, it opened the flood gates to a 5 run Michigan inning.
Things weren't all sunshine and happy following the inning. On Berset's double, LaMarre went 1st to 3rd and came up holding his hamstring, stretching it out thoroughly during a pitching conference at the mound. LaMarre would stay in and score on a Dufek sac fly, but he left the game as a precautionary move to start the next inning. He's expected to be fine for the Illinois series.
On the mound, Matt Gerbe made a good start, making it through 4 innings and giving up just one run. He gave up a lot of baserunners, but he managed to escape time and again. That changed in the 5th inning. After loading the bases, with only one out, Gerbe threw a wild pitch through Crank's legs. That plated the first Falcon run of the inning. The next batter would line one right back to Gerbe who made a great snag to catch the ball for an out, but when Gerbe went to throw out the runner at third for not tagging up, the ball was thrown away. Two more runners would score and Gerbe would be pulled.
Kolby Wood came in and did alright in earning the win, but the team did have to use Burgoon again for 2 innings. Tyler was lights out as usual, but I have to wonder what his availability is this weekend. I imagine he won't be in Friday unless it's a dire necessity.
Bonus update from The Daily's game wrap:
“I want to thank Tyler Burgoon for my inspiration for my first home run,” Toth said. “He inspired me by telling me I am never going to get one. He tells me that every single day, whether we have a game or not, so I’m glad I got that monkey off my back.”
Illinois questioning [ed: and awesome excel graph!] after the jump:
One of the longest running bloggers on Big Ten baseball is Thomas Nelshoppen, formerly of The Baseball Zealot, and currently of the Illinois Baseball Report. Thomas joined me for some vicious electronic questioning to help preview the Illini, Michigan's opponent this weekend.
If I were to visualize Illinois’ season in a graph format, it would look like a steep mountain only the right side of the mountain tapers off a bit. They started out in a slump, losing six straight after winning their first game of the year. By spring break, they got hot and won ten out of twelve. Nowadays, they’re playing about .500 ball, winning some and losing some.
We managed to win one against ranked East Carolina early on. That was our big win of the non-conference schedule.
FA: I made you a chart in excel. It has no meaning whatsoever. Notice the sweet drop when you are going to be swept by Michigan. How as this compared to your preseason expectations?
After our 10-1 win against Eastern Illinois last night, we’re 14-13 right now and 3-3 against the Big Ten so it’s hard to say. Of course, I expected a little more but considering we started out the season 1-6, I think Illinois is on the right track.
Our pitching got off to a slow start but has really improved as the season wore on. We have a very young staff so that stands to reason. Our offense, especially from certain players, has really exceeded expectations.
FA: The Illini have been an offensive power over the last few years. Is that still the case this year? Who are the top guys at the plate this year?
Funny you should say that. I’ve always seen Illinois’ strengths coming from their defense, speed and to some degree, pitching. We’ve done ok with the stick in the past with a decent batting average but we’ve had a dearth of power. I’m happy to see outfielder Casey McMurray trying to change that this year. He has six dingers and is flirting with .400.
We have a couple players who have really seemed to have developed since last year. McMurray is one of them. Another example is right fielder Craig Lutes who barely hit above the Mendoza line in 2009. This year, he’s really found his stroke and has had some really big games.
Freshman Brandon Hohl came to us with great scouting reports but I don’t think even we could have expected what we’ve gotten from him so far in 2010. He’s second on the team with 23 rbis.
Aaron Johnson’s batting average (.277) probably isn’t as high as he would like but he is really a clutch player. He’s third on our team with 19 rbis and has an excellent glove behind the plate.
Finally, centerfielder Willie Argo has really responded well to his move to the leadoff spot. Right now, he leads the Big Ten in steals with 23 and is hitting .398. More importantly, he’s getting on base. He’s got a .496 OBP.
You should see some of his catches he’s made in center, too.
FA: With his speed, I could imagine some web gems. I see that you guys are second only to MSU in steals this season. Is Illinois still packed with base stealers?
You’re right, we outpace our opponents in steals by a 67-39 margin. Aside from Argo, we have Josh Parr who’s not afraid to steal a base. He’s second on our team with 13 steals.
There’s no doubt that Illinois uses their speed as an integral part of their offensive strategy. They like to make things happen on the base paths. The last two games I’ve been to, they’ve scored a run on a double steal. For my part, that’s the kind of baseball I love to see.
FA: What happened to Josh Parr and Pete Cappetta this season? They've gone from hitting .337 and .384 respectively, to just .262 and .224.
Short answer: You tell me. I haven’t a clue.
Long answer: Pete Cappetta started a little slow in 2009 and really picked it up once we got to the Big Ten schedule. He ended up leading the conference with his .384 batting average. We’re seeing the same trend with him this year. He had a monster weekend against Penn State and got a hit in each game against Iowa.
I’m hoping the same for Josh Parr. He went 5 for 11 last weekend against Iowa.
In both cases, we might be able to attribute it to the fact that both are playing new positions. Parr moved from second base to shortstop and Cappetta is taking on second base duties. Cappetta was a jack of all trades last year and perhaps playing just one position every day will pay off in the long run.
FA: I'll tell you I wouldn't be surprised if they both hit .500 this weekend. Everyone seems to play their best ball against Michigan this year. It's killing me. You guys lost 2 of your main starters from last year, and it looks like Bryan Roberts is strictly from the bullpen. How does the rotation set up? Who's the ace?
Without looking at the stats, I’d have to say it’s sophomore Will Strack. He IS our Friday starter, after all. Strack has pretty solid year last year as a freshman and was put in Friday starter role. That’s a lot to put onto a sophomore especially when you’re followed up by a freshman on Saturday.
That freshman is Kevin Johnson who appears to have a lot of potential. I sense that Illinois is being patient with Kevin and I think it’s going to pay off. It seems like he’s already gaining more confidence.
Finally, Lee Zerrusen rounds out the weekend. Big Z was our closer at the beginning of the year but Hartleb made the move to make him a starter which I really supported. Lee has experience and has pitched in high pressure situations such as the Big Ten Tournament.
FA: Speaking of closers, Bryan Roberts, I see he has 4 saves to lead the team. Is he your closer now?
I guess so. It’s hard to say these days. As I said, Illinois had Zerrusen in as the closer at the top of the season. Then they toyed with Corey Kimes as the closer who did a fine job. But it seems they have (for now) decided on Roberts.
I’ve always liked Roberts. His 2009 stats don’t show it but he filled in quite capably when injuries felled our starters last year and some games he was unhittable.
FA: Mike Sterk and Kevin Manson appear to be doing well in the bullpen. Would you consider the bullpen a strength this season?
At the beginning of the season, I would have said no. I think I was even getting on their case on my blog in my own principled way. But yeah, they’ve really come through recently. I’m putting Sterk and Manson in that same category of players who have made great strides since last year. I briefly mentioned Corey Kimes earlier but he’s worth touching on again. Physically, Kimes is an imposing pitcher who I think is really developing. He’s only a sophomore too.
FA: How's Illinois's defense been this season? I see they're just below average in the Big Ten. Any liabilities on the infield Michigan fans should know about?
No. [whistles innocently…]
Seriously, Illinois infield is in an odd situation because none of the four infield positions are filled by players who played any significant time there last year. We lost first baseman Matt Dittman to injury (though we are fortunate to have Mike Giller who replaces him quite capably). As mentioned before, Cappetta and Parr are relatively new to their positions at second and short. Finally, we have freshman Brandon Hohl at third.
Hohl has done well at third. He’s made some pretty good plays and hasn’t made the mistakes you would expect from a newcomer. Cappetta has filled the secondbase position admirably and I enjoy watching him there. Parr, I think, is still adjusting to shortstop. It might be a confidence issue and it maybe it will help when he gets out of his hitting funk.
FA: In week one at Indiana, the Hoosiers busted out with THE DRUM, an extremely annoying drum to start slow claps when opposing batters have 2 strikes on them. Does the ballpark in Champaign have any gimmicks to it?
No, nothing too annoying. When we begin to rally the PA will play a drumbeat which segues into a version of our Chief Illiniwek ditty. But I don’t think it will raise the ire of visiting fans.
Now that you mention it though, maybe I’ll come up with something that does.
FA: It couldn't be much worse than Purdue's SHIRTLESS DUDE that traveled to Ann Arbor last week. Some fans are still demanding their vision back. What's your prediction for this weekend? How do you see Illinois finishing in the Big Ten?
A sweep would make me ecstatic and I think I would be satisfied with a two-win weekend. I would be sorely resigned to just one win. But if we got swept, I would just cry myself to sleep.
As for the season, I realistically think that Illinois will most likely sneak into the Big Ten Tournament like they do every year. But they WILL make it.
That said, it’s shaping up to be an interesting year so far in the Big Ten. One of the preseason favorites, Minnesota, is having a tough time so far. Not only that, our old rival Michigan State is having a fantastic year. From a purely academic point of view it’s nice to see things shaken up a bit in the Big Ten. I just hope it bodes well for the Illini.
While I find your satisfaction with a two win weekend a bold way of saying you think Illinois will probably win two games, I think this is a pretty close series. Both teams are playing decent ball right now, with neither team being overly dominant. I could see it going either way, but I'll take the homer version – Michigan takes 2 of 3.
Illini series game set and thoughts will be out Friday morning.