Who: Illinois Fighting Illini (25-20, 9-9) at Indiana Hoosiers (29-17, 13-5)
Where: Bart Kaufman Field, Bloomington, IN
When: Friday, 6:05 p.m.; Saturday, 2:05 p.m., Sunday 1:05 p.m.
Last season when Indiana and Illinois met, there was no way of knowing that the matchup was one of two eventual NCAA tournament teams. While Illinois was well on its way to becoming the second national seed in Big Ten history (Indiana being the first in 2014), the Hoosiers were 4-5 in Big Ten play and in the middle of a stretch of pitiful play that ultimately required them to to go on a tear at the end of the regular season just to sneak into a regional. But still, the two games that the Illini won in Champaign were matchups of tournament teams.
That won't be the case this weekend when the two square off in Bloomington for Indiana's final three homes games of the season. Indiana's problems have been documented. An embarrassing schedule that provided no quality wins in the non-conference coupled with several bad losses, and a late season resurgence have the Hoosiers in a bizarre place: they lead the Big Ten standings but are on the outside looking in on the NCAAs.
For Illinois, they aren't fighting so much for an NCAA berth at this point as they are for a Big Ten berth, After losing a ton of talent from last year's team that put the program on the map, the Illini currently sit in ninth place in the conference standings, one game behind Ohio State, Maryland, and Penn State, and thus one game out from the Big Ten's eight-team conference tournament.
So even though this doesn't have the glamour of a top-25 series, this is undoubtedly one of the most important series in the country this weekend as these two teams jockey for positioning in and an invitation to the Big Ten Tournament, what appears to be the only avenue to an NCAA regional for each team.
For the Hoosiers (96th in the RPI this morning), these are the first three of seven remaining games against teams ahead of them in the RPI (three vs. Illinois (64), one at Louisville (2), and three at Nebraska (43)). While it still looks like the only way Indiana will make a regional is a Big Ten Tournament championship, they could make it interesting with a sweep of Illinois this weekend, which would assuredly move them up several spots in the RPI and set up a chance for a signature win on Tuesday at Louisville that would matter that much more.
But still, with several quality teams in the Big Ten race this season, including Michigan, who is in play to host an NCAA regional, what's most important for Indiana is staying on top of the Big Ten race. And with Minnesota just half a game behind and playing Purdue this weekend, Indiana will probably need to win two just to stay within striking distance of the Gohpers and will need a sweep to stay in first place.
As has been the case since the middle parts of the season, Manager Chris Lemonis will throw Kyle Hart, Caleb Baragar, and Evan Bell, respectively, this weekend, and will hope that he gets the same kind of effort from his horses that he got from the midweek staff on Tuesday against Kentucky. He'll also hope that the Hoosiers bring the same bats that went on the road to Minneapolis last weekend, as the Hoosiers scored 21 runs, their most in a 3-game series all season.
Illinois will look to build on their own momentum after having taken two of three from Maryland in College Park last weekend, including a 4-2 win over Terrapin ace Mike Shawaryn. But Shawaryn has been a shell of himself this season and the Illini will have to take a crack tonight at Kyle Hart, who has been the Big Ten's best pitcher in 2016.
Hart's 3.18 ERA doesn't tell the whole story of his season as it was inflated by a wind-blowing-out kind of day in Minnesota a week ago when he gave up eight runs in six innings, but still picked up the win. It was his NCAA-leading 10th win. Along with it, Hart has posted 67 strikeouts compared to just 14 walks and has been a stabilizing force for the Hoosiers, righting the ship several times throughout the season.
He'll take the ball on Friday against 5-2 Jr. Cody Sedlock, a righty with a 2.82 ERA who might make his own claims to being the Big Ten's best pitcher. At the end of April, he was named National Pitcher of the Week after a no-decision against Ohio State in which he pitched 10.2 innings against the Buckeyes and struck out 14 along the way, helping the Illini to a 1-0 win.
First pitch tonight is at 6:05 p.m.