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No. 24 Maryland baseball at Illinois preview

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The Terps look to pick up another Big Ten series win in a clash between two of the conference’s best teams.

Photo courtesy of Maryland Athletics.

After sweeping Ohio State in a three-game series, No. 24 Maryland baseball was on cruise control heading into its midweek game at Towson.

Up 3-0 heading into the bottom of the eighth, the Terps were in prime position to pick up their fifth consecutive win. However, Towson raked in two runs with two outs on the board, cutting the Terps lead to just one.

With the game now tied at three in the top of the 10th, junior left fielder Bobby Zmarzlak continued his weekend heroics with a go-ahead home run to give Maryland the 4-3 victory.

This weekend, the Terps are headed to Champaign, Illinois, where they will take on the Fighting Illini for the first time this season. Maryland’s typical rotation of junior Nick Dean, junior Ryan Ramsey and sophomore Jason Savacool are all slated to start this weekend.

Friday and Saturday’s games will each be aired on BTN as they are set to begin at 9:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., respectively. Sunday’s series finale will begin at 2:00 p.m. and be streamed on BTN Plus.

Illinois Fighting Illini (19-15, 10-2 Big Ten)

2021 record: 22-22 (22-22, Big Ten)

Head coach Dan Hartleb has been with the program for the last 32 seasons, 17 as head coach. Hartled is the winningest coach in Illinois history as he holds a 476-348-1 record. Two Big Ten titles (2011, 2015) and a 224-175 conference record netted Hartleb the Big Ten Coach of the Decade for the 2010s. This season, Hartleb has another strong roster that is off to a great start in Big Ten play.

Hitters to know

Junior infielder/outfielder Cam McDonald is one of the best hitters Maryland will face all year. McDonald, who holds a .361 batting average, has started in every game over the last two seasons and has made a massive jump on the offensive end this year. He leads the team in home runs (6), RBIs (36), slugging percentage (.586) and extra-base hits (17). Typically batting fifth, McDonald can be dangerous with men on base.

Sophomore first baseman Justin Janas was unbelievable as a freshman, earning ABCA/Rawlings All-Region Second Team and All-Big Ten First Team honors. This season, however, Janas hasn’t had the same success. His batting average and slugging percentage dropped by .116 and .067 respectively, and his strikeout percentage has gone up 1.9%. Despite this, Janas is still a threat and needs to be a focal point of Maryland’s gameplan.

Pitchers to know

Sophomore left-handed pitcher Cole Kirschsieper is perhaps the Fighting Illini’s most valuable player. Kirschsieper is Illinois’ best pitcher, starting in all nine of his appearances. So far this season, he has recorded a 2.75 ERA, a .211 opponent batting average and 57 strikeouts. The Big Ten Pitcher of the Week earlier this month, Kirschsieper is coming off an impressive seven-strikeout game against Northwestern, and the Terps are likely to see him on Friday.

Senior right-handed pitcher Tommy Green has made a team-high 14 appearances this season while tallying a 4.34 ERA, the fourth-best on the team. Illinois is the fourth program that Green has played for, and the Fighting Illini have wasted no time immersing him into the rotation. Green let up three runs in just one inning last Friday, but that should not hinder Illinois’ confidence in him.

Strength

Getting on base. Illinois has been one of the Big Ten’s best when it comes to making contact and getting on base. They currently rank fourth in the conference in batting average (.278) and hit-by-pitches (50), fifth in on-base-percentage (.380) and ninth in strikeouts (266). While the Fighting Illini aren’t always home run threats, they know how to put the ball in play.

Weakness

Power hitting. Although Illinois doesn’t have many weaknesses, power hitting certainly isn’t a strength. They are second to last in the Big Ten in triples (6), eighth in home runs (30) and seventh in slugging percentage (.422). This lack of power has limited Illinois offensive ceiling all season.

Three things to watch

1. Can Bobby Zmarzlak continue his stellar play? The reigning Big Ten Player of the Week was dominant all weekend against Ohio State, producing six hits, eight RBIs and two home runs, one of which was a three-run walk-off shot. Zmarzlak’s tear continued into the week, hitting another clutch go-ahead homer in the top of the 10th inning against Towson. After struggling for a good portion of the year, this recent stretch has instilled confidence in Zmarzlak, his teammates and his coaches.

2. Will Nick Lorusso’s struggles continue? After getting on base in each of the first 32 games, junior third baseman Nick Lorusso has come up empty the last few outings. In three of the last five games, Lorusso has had 14 at bats, failing to get on base once. On the bright side, he has struck out just one time over the three-game sample size, and this seems like a minor slump. Lorusso will have a chance to get back on track against a talented bullpen this weekend.

3. How will Maryland play against a challenging Big Ten opponent? This is the Terps’ first real obstacle in Big Ten play as Illinois is their first opponent with an above-.500 record. With each of these teams on a roll — Maryland is on a five-game winning streak, and Illinois is on a six-game winning streak — this should be a fitting follow-up to the Terps’ highly entertaining series against Ohio State.