FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas baseball fans are becoming increasingly familiar with Eastern Illinois, which is odd for a mid-major program that doesn’t even share a border with the state.
When the Panthers visit Baum-Walker Stadium this weekend, it will be their sixth three-game series in Fayetteville since 2014. The Razorbacks have won all but one of the 15 games between the schools over the past decade, but Eastern Illinois keeps coming back.
For head coach Jason Anderson, though, it’s a no-brainer — especially for a small school in the midwest looking for road games early in the season.
“They’re just first class down there, all around,” Anderson told Best of Arkansas Sports. “They treat us well. Coach (Van Horn) is fantastic. If they game gets out of hand, he ain’t trying to pad stats or anything like that.
“The fans do it right. Their job is to get on our guys, but at the end of the weekend, if we act right, usually everybody walks away with respect for each other. So I love it. The distance is good, the competition is obviously awesome and the experience and the facilities. But it’s first class all around, from the coaches, to their team, to the fans, everything.”
Including the three matchups with Arkansas, Eastern Illinois — an OVC school located in Charleston, Ill. — will play its first 18 games of the 2023 season away from home. Interestingly, this won’t be the Panthers’ only trip to the Natural State, as they also have a three-game series at Arkansas State (March 10-12) followed by a two-game midweek series at UAPB (March 14-15).
Unlike most of the SEC, where most of the teams can manage the weather in mid-February, Eastern Illinois can’t count on that. It hasn’t been as bad this year, allowing the Panthers to get outside “quite a bit,” Anderson said, but that isn’t always the case.
“That’s pretty standard for us,” Anderson said. “We’re going to hit the road. We try to go as far south as we can to get to warmer weather.”
Making that stretch of games even more incredible is the fact that Eastern Illinois rides a bus to each series. Anderson did his interview with Best of Arkansas Sports while on the 7.5-hour ride to Fayetteville — which pales in comparison to the 12.5-hour trek to Tallahassee, Fla., last weekend for a series at Florida A&M.
Those kinds of trips led to the Panthers’ coach describing his team as “true road warriors.”
They’ll certainly be tested this weekend when they face a top-10 Arkansas baseball team that already has wins over Texas and Oklahoma State on its resume.
Key Player Returns after Freak Injury
Last week, Eastern Illinois opened the season at Florida A&M and came away with a sweep, but it wasn’t easy. The Panthers needed extra innings in the opener and then hung on for 4-3 and 3-0 victories the next two days.
However, it’s worth noting that they were without one of their best players, as shortstop Chris Worcester — the reigning OVC Freshman of the Year — didn’t play in any of the three games.
“Just a little tweak,” Anderson said. “We just left him out. He kind of tweaked his ankle doing a backflip in the locker room, so he’s really athletic. We just took our time. He’ll be here this weekend.”
The Bloomingdale, Ill., native hit .320 with two home runs and 29 RBIs in 40 games, plus was a menace on the base paths with 10 stolen bases in 12 attempts last year.
A name Arkansas baseball fans may remember from Eastern Illinois’ trip to Baum-Walker Stadium three years ago is Ryan Ignoffo.
Then a sophomore, Ignoffo went 5 for 11 against the Razorbacks in the 2020 season-opening series, including a three-hit game in the finale.
Now a super senior using his extra year of eligibility, he is a candidate to be the OVC Player of the Year. Ignoffo put up huge numbers for Eastern Illinois in 2022, hitting .395 with 16 doubles, 14 home runs and 58 RBIs in 44 games. He had an OPS of 1.144 and was also perfect on seven stolen base attempts.
Something that could bolster his chances for postseason recognition is that he’ll also pitch quite a bit this season.
“Last year, I thought he should have been the player of the year in our conference,” Anderson said. “Really good offensive player for us last year. Last year we had a ton of pitching depth that we don’t have this year, so he’s going to be pitching a little bit more for us this year. So you’ll see him on the mound as well as in the lineup, but he’s going to be big for us on both sides.”
After throwing only four innings across four appearances all of last season, Ignoffo nearly matched that total in a three-inning save in the Panthers’ second game of the year.
It’s still early, so it’s unclear exactly how Eastern Illinois will use him, but he’s shown potential in the past. In 2021, Ignoffo posted a 3.79 ERA in 19 innings. Most impressively, he had 29 strikeouts with only eight walks while holding opponents to a .208 batting average.
“We just kind of go game to game and try to game plan for our strengths,” Anderson said. “I don’t know how many advantages we’re going to have this weekend, but most weekends we’re going to have some type of advantage somewhere.
“He’s got a really good arm. We just have to knock the rust off on the pitching mound and he got a chance to do that last week. It’s still the second weekend, so we don’t really have any jobs won or anything like that. We’re just trying to win ballgames and figure out what guys can do.”
Friday Night Starter vs. Arkansas
Just looking at box scores, it’d be easy to determine that right-hander Blake Malatestinic had the worst outing of Eastern Illinois’ starting pitchers last weekend.
Florida A&M tagged him for six runs – four earned – on nine hits and two walks in 5 1/3 innings. However, five of those runs came off the bat of Jared Weber, who hit three- and two-run homers off him. The sixth run was a solo shot by Ty Hanchey.
The outing did nothing to cause Anderson to shake up his rotation for this weekend, so the sixth-year super senior will get the ball again Friday afternoon against the Razorbacks.
“Last weekend he didn’t pitch bad, he just made three mistakes to the same guy,” Anderson said. “The guy had two home runs and five RBIs, but other than that, he pitched pretty well.
“He’s in his sixth year, he’s really going to compete. He’s got a ton of experience. He’s not going to overpower these guys at all, but he’s also not going to give in. He’s going to make them beat him. He’ll get it into the 90s and mix it up and hold runners and do all that good stuff, so we like him going out there and being able to handle the first game.”
Big Crowds Await at Arkansas
According to the box scores, Eastern Illinois played in front of 402 total fans last weekend in Tallahassee, Fla., with the biggest crowd being 148 for Friday’s opener.
Needless to say, the Panthers may see many more fans than that in the parking lot when they pull up to the stadium several hours before Game 1 — but Anderson doesn’t think it’ll impact his team.
“We’re just excited to play baseball, man,” Anderson said. “We don’t care if it’s Fayetteville or in the parking lot. We played 46 road games last year and we played all over the place.
“They’re excited, but we just want to play ball and we know how big of a challenge it is and what the atmosphere is. We’ve been here a couple times, but I don’t think there’s going to be a ton of nerves. I think we’ll just go out and play and hopefully compete well.”
Eastern Illinois, despite its poor record in the series, has been competitive against the Razorbacks in the past. Back in 2016, the Panthers knocked off the Razorbacks in 12 innings after a ninth-inning Chad Spanberger home run sent it to extras and then Arkansas won the rubber match 3-2 on a walk-off walk.
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