Oxford Regional Preview: Tigers take aim at deep Illinois pitching staff


by - Senior Writer -
Monte Lee and the Tigers play Illinois at 4 pm Friday
Monte Lee and the Tigers play Illinois at 4 pm Friday

CLEMSON – Monte Lee’s pitching plans for the Oxford Regional all depend on the Tigers defeating Illinois in game one Friday, but the Illini are no pushover.

The Tigers (34-24) face No. 2 seed Illinois (36-19) in their opening game, while No. 1 seed Mississippi (37-25) and No. 4 seed Jacksonville State (37-21) round out the regional field. Clemson’s game will be televised by ESPNU.

Illinois (36-19) brings a balanced pitching and hitting attack to the Oxford Regional, along with one of the nation's top defenses. The Illini set the Big Ten's conference games fielding percentage record on their way to Illinois' first NCAA Tournament appearance since winning the 2015 NCAA Champaign Regional and advancing to the program's first-ever Super Regional.

Illinois' pitching is 25th in the nation in ERA (3.66) and third in hits allowed per nine innings (7.09), led by starting pitchers Ty Weber (4-2, 2.97) and Andy Fisher (7-1, 2.57). The Illini will go with Weber in the Friday opener against Clemson lefty Jacob Hennessy (4-1, 3.72).

REGIONAL SETUP

• Who – Clemson (34-24) vs. Illinois (36-19)

• Best Ranking – CU – NR; ILL – NR

• When – Friday (4 p.m. EDT)

• Where – Oxford, Miss. (Swayze Field)

• Watch – ESPNU

• Video Announcers – Lance Cormier, Richard Cross

• Listen (Radio) – WCCP (105.5 FM), ESPN Upstate

• Listen (Internet) – ClemsonTigers.com, TuneIn

• Live Stats – ClemsonTigers.com

• Social Media – @ClemsonTigerNet, @mdavidhood

“I’ve talked to a few folks about Illinois,” Lee said Tuesday. “We haven’t really talked about anybody else in that regional because we are focused on game one. What we know about Illinois is they have outstanding pitching. Their starting pitching is very good. Their best starter is a left-hander. But their bullpen is the strength of their pitching staff.”

The Illinois bullpen is anchored by closer Garrett Acton. Acton leads college baseball in saves with 19 and has done so by posting a 2.23 ERA and holding batters to a .121 batting average across 29 appearances this season.

“Their starting pitching is very good, but when you look at the way they use their pen, they have a number of guys and they use them in short spurts,” Lee said. “If the starter goes six, they have a guy for the seventh, a guy for the eighth and a guy for the ninth. They have a closer that has 19 saves. Their opponent batting average against their pitching is .217 on the season and they are fielding .982. The strength of their team is pitching and defense. They don’t make a lot of mistakes and you have to beat them. They can really shorten the game on you if you have a lead because they can go to their bullpen. They don’t have to stretch their starter out because their pen is so good.”

The Illini aren’t among the nation’s best hitting teams. They had a .279 batting average during the regular season, which ranked No. 82 out of 297 teams. However, their .358 on-base percentage ranked No. 168 in the nation. Grant Van Scoy is hitting .347 and Zac Taylor is batting .331 with 10 homers, 28 RBIs and 20 steals

“Offensively, they are very balanced,” Lee said. “Just looking at their lineup, they are not a power-driven offense but have a lot of hitters that are hitting in that .270-.280-plus range. They are a contact-oriented offense and have only 380-something strikeouts on the season. They don’t walk a lot, which tells me they are a high contact, high-frequency swing team that is going to put a lot of balls in play and put pressure on the defense.”

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