By Matt Stevens - IlliniGuys Staff Writer
April 22, 2022
CHAMPAIGN -- Illinois head coach Dan Hartleb has said one of the more comforting feelings he has this season is handing the baseball to his Friday night ace.
This feeling obviously spread throughout the home dugout as Illinois dominated No. 24 Maryland 19-1. With the Illini winning and Rutgers losing early in the day at Iowa City on Friday night, Illinois (20-15, 11-2) moved into a tie at the top of the Big Ten standings.
In front of several pro scouts, Cole Kirschsieper gave Illinois another reliable start on the mound to begin a crucial Big Ten Conference weekend series. The 5-foot-11, 170-pound left-hander controlled a Maryland lineup that came to Illinois Field with the second-best hitting numbers in the Big Ten Conference at .295 this season and most home runs with 60.
“Whether you’re in a Friday night game or any game for that matter, your starting pitcher has to give you an opportunity to do great things,” Hartleb said. “Cole did a great job of getting us to a point where we confidently take good swings and get us that 4-0 lead.”
The sophomore nearly matched his season-high strikeout total in Big Ten play with eight as his 87-89 mile-per-hour fastball mixed with off-speed offerings forced seven lazy flyouts. It was the sixth straight start for Kirschsieper with at least five strikeouts as Maryland (30-8, 7-3 in Big Ten) only got on the board Kirschsieper (5-2) forced himself to battle back from early hitting counts but only allowed two hits through the six-inning outing that got the weekend momentum going toward the home team.
“That 21-pitch first inning that Cole had was really funny because you could tell his was amped up and excited to be out there competing in a big ballgame,” Hartleb said. “I’ll take six solid innings like that for him for the rest of the season.”
Once the southpaw star silenced the Maryland bats early, Illinois’ offense jumped all over Terrapins starter Nick Dean (3-2) for four runs in the third and five earned runs before Terrapins head coach Rob Vaughn was forced to go early to the bullpen. Dean, a junior right-hander, surrendered five runs on seven hits in a rough 81-pitch outing that saw his earned run average balloon from 3.94 to 4.53.
With a doubleheader (2 p.m. and 7 p.m. CST) slated for Saturday due to impending weather in the Champaign-Urbana area on Sunday, Maryland elected to hold back its top two starting pitchers (RHP Jason Savacool and LHP Ryan Ramsey) for the back half of the weekend.
It didn’t get better for the road team as Maryland, which was ranked No. 22 by Baseball America and No. 24 by D1baseball.com coming into this weekend, saw nine more runs given up by the parade of four bullpen arms who Vaughn would turn before the evening was over.
The Illini got a multi-hit effort from each of the first five members of its lineup (Danny Doligale, Branden Cornia, Justin Janas, Jacob Campbell and Cam McDonald) that combined to go 15 of 21 at the plate with seven of those hits going for extra bases including five home runs.
Before Friday night, the most runs for Illinois this season was a pair of 13-run scoring efforts (vs. Butler on 3/15, vs. Wheaton on 3/23). Illinois posted the most runs in a game since 2015 when that Illini squad, which hosted a NCAA Regional and advanced to a Super Regional, defeated Rutgers 28-13 on May 10.
“When we got it to 4-0, I said on one of the Big Ten Network in-game interviews that I thought we’d need more runs tonight. Now, I didn’t necessarily think that 19 runs were coming,” Hartleb said.
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. Hartleb knows two more wins against a team in the top 30 of the latest RPI ratings would go a long way to getting the Illini back into the NCAA field for the first time since 2019.
“There’s no carryover to (Saturday) and the 18 innings of baseball we have ahead of us,” Hartleb said. “It’s nice to get a win tonight but Saturday is big for this program because we have to figure out a way to win a series and worry about the first game of that doubleheader and see where that will go.”
Cornia and Janas combined for seven hits including two home runs to pace the Illinois offense to its first win over a ranked opponent since Feb. 19, 2019.
“I thought a couple of our guys had been scuffling lately at the plate because they were chasing stuff out of the zone,” Hartleb said. “Our guys up and down the lineup really laid off some stuff out of the zone and made the pitcher come to them. I was really, really pleased with our approach.”
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