By Matt Stevens - IlliniGuys Staff Writer
April 23, 2022
(Cover photo courtesy Big Ten Network)
CHAMPAIGN -- If on Memorial Day, the players and coaches at Illinois baseball find themselves on the wrong side of the bubble for an at-large berth to a 2022 NCAA Regional, April 23 is the day they’ll likely have regrets.
Due to an inability to manage any consistency on the mound or in the field Saturday, Illinois found themselves all but handing a pair of games to No. 24 Maryland as the highest ranked Big Ten Conference program swept a doubleheader in Champaign to take the weekend series.
Just a few hours after swallowing a 13-9 loss in 10 innings earlier in the day, Illinois (20-17, 11-4 in Big Ten) figured out a way to collapse a 3-0 opening inning lead into a 7-4 defeat.
Maryland (32-8, 9-3) used four runs in the second and third innings mostly surrendered when Illini right fielder Danny Doligale couldn’t find the baseball through the lights of Illinois Field on back-to-back hitters to allow Maryland all of the momentum that comes with a sudden 4-3 lead.
Illinois, which managed to plate 32 runs throughout the weekend but lose the final two games of the conference series, put a 3-0 lead in the opening inning before Maryland starting pitcher Jason Savacool (7-2) recorded an out.
However, Savacool managed to settle down his early mechanical issues to face the minimum in four of his final five innings of work. The 2021 Baseball America Big Ten Preseason Newcomer of the Year selection was able to maneuver through eight innings where he gave up just six runs and one earned run after the opening inning in a 106-pitch outing.
Illinois constantly gave Maryland, which arrived in Champaign ranked No. 22 in the Baseball America poll and No. 24 by D1Baseball.com rankings, extra outs to play with after flubbing pop ups and seemingly routine plays for a team that entered the weekend near the top of the Big Ten Conference in fielding percentage.
While down 5-4 in the fifth frame, the Illini managed to get Savacool in trouble again as two singles and a hit by pitch loaded the bases with no outs and Illinois cleanup hitter Jacob Campbell coming to the plate. In just six more pitches, Savacool managed to sit Campbell down on strikes and get a double play ground ball to escape any damage at all.
When Illinois built momentum in the seventh inning, its third time through the order against Savacool, a double play on a grounder hit to Terrapins shortstop Matt Shaw appeared to halt any comeback opportunity for the Illini. When it appeared clear that on the 6-4-3 double play ball, Maryland second baseman Kevin Keister didn’t come close to touching second base with either foot on the flip exchange, Illinois head coach Dan Hartleb was ejected for arguing the non-call after being warned two times to not come out of the home dugout. Hartleb, who is in his 17th season at Illinois, rarely shows emotion on the diamond in front of his club but his ejection made him decline any post-game media opportunities following the doubleheader disaster sweep by Maryland.
Illinois, which entered Saturday with a RPI of 60, is now just 2-4 against Quad 1 opponents of the RPI and missed an opportunity to pad its NCAA Regional resume to the selection committee chaired this season by the Army athletics director Mike Buddie. At No. 25, Maryland was the highest ranked RPI opponent for the Illini since losing 6-1 in the first game of the Cambria College Classic at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis on March 4.
The Illini, which is hitting .286 as a team and that mark goes for fourth in the Big Ten, have seen their pitching staff give up more home runs than anybody in the conference this season. Illinois needed a confidence boost from this weekend to prove to their youthful squad, which doesn’t have anybody on the roster who has been to the NCAA postseason play, they can pick up quality wins before the Big Ten Tournament at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha from May 25-29. In its 64-team NCAA Regional projection released Wednesday, D1baseball.com projected Illinois as the second-to-last team out of receiving an at-large berth. Currently, Illinois - which next plays against Bradley on Wednesday night at the Single-A affiliate Peoria Chiefs Dozer Park - doesn’t have a single game left on its 2022 slate against a team ranked inside the RPI Top 75 and is currently 6-9 against Quad 1 or Quad 2 opponents.
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