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UI pitching staff starting to settle in after rough start

Apr. 16—CHAMPAIGN — Cooper Omans has the letters "FOE" written on the underside of the bill of his hat.

It's a reminder for the Illinois left-handed pitcher to focus on execution. A nod to Illini pitching coach Mark Allen, who stepped away from the team last month after being diagnosed with cancer.

"The one thing that Coach Allen really harps on with us is focus on the mound," Omans said. "Focus on executing. Just keep going at the zone. Even though he's not here physically, he's always with us. We talk to him all the time on the phone, but it's been hard not having him around. It's been motivating at the same time. ... Thinking about Coach Allen and doing it for him it kind of helps you settle down and reaffirm what he established in us as pitchers."

That focus has helped the Illinois pitching staff find a bit more consistency in the last month. Staff ERAs have fallen. Not quickly — or dramatically — but fallen all the same.

Friday starter Jack Crowder saw his ERA balloon above 7.00 in early March, but it's come back to 5.36 after he picked up the win in the first of three Illinois wins against Northern Illinois this past weekend.

"We've had some talks," Crowder said. "We played some good teams and got smacked around a bunch, but we had some talks where it basically comes down to strikes. If we don't put guys on base — if we don't hit guys, if we make them put the ball in play — we'll be successful. No free passes and make them swing the bat. It's been working for us."

The Illinois pitchers did get knocked around in the first month of the season, though. Coastal Carolina tagged them for 17 runs in late February, with Cincinnati scoring 10 runs a day later in the tournament in Conway, S.C. Florida State put up 13 runs in another trip to Greenville, S.C., a week later, and Tennessee went off for 24 runs a week after that.

"We've got a lot of guys that are capable," Illinois coach Dan Hartleb said. "It's just a lack of consistency. We'll have a guy go out and be lights out one game and then you use him in a similar situation the next game and it looks like they've never pitched. It's just getting those guys to give us consistent outings. If you throw competitive pitches and things don't go your way, that's part of the game, but there's been a lot of games we walk a bunch of guys without competitive pitches. That's been troublesome, but we're getting better."

An increase in run support has certainly bolstered the Illinois pitchers' chances. Scoring double-digit runs nearly a dozen times in the last month has widened the margin of error. One bad inning by an Illini pitcher isn't so costly.

"It gives you the liberty as a pitcher to just go out and fill up the zone and throw everything for a strike," said Omans, who joined Illinois this season after four at Division II Nova Southeastern in Davie, Fla. "As a pitcher, that gives you so much confidence. Especially when you have guys that play great defense behind you as well.

"That's what really attracted me to come here. These guys were the best hitters in the conference last year, and you see what they're doing this year and they're doing the same thing. As a pitcher, it's everything you want — and even more."

Crowder and Omans both had tricky innings in the NIU series. Crowder gave up a pair of solo home runs in the top of the first inning Friday. Illinois answered with seven runs in the bottom of the second. Omans gave up a pair of runs in the second and third innings Saturday, but by the time he went out for the top of the fourth, he was already staked to an 11-4 lead.

"I could give up five runs in an inning, and with these guys, you never know," Crowder said. "When you know the offense is going to put up runs, it's basically just put the ball over the plate, make the defense work and keep us in the game because you know they can spark up seven or eight runs in one inning. Even if I pitch bad, walk some guys, they'll pick me up."

Hartleb brought Cameron Hill on board as fill-in pitching coach after Allen took a leave of absence. The Oklahoma City native was drafted in the 17th round of the 2014 MLB draft by the then-Cleveland Indians and made his MLB debut in July 2020.

"We all love Coach Allen — we're playing for him, and hopefully we get to see him sometime soon — but Cam's been great," Crowder said. "We all love Cam. He's been really energetic for us, a player-type vibe, and it's been good."

Hill's MLB experience resonates with the Illinois pitching staff. His emphasis on mentality and execution dovetails with what Allen made important.

"As a pitcher, you're only asked to focus for an inning, maybe five innings or six innings or maybe a whole game if you're really rolling," Omans said. "When you're out there, that's your time. That's what he's ingrained in us."