Wed, May 14: Big Ten tourney offers Illini chance to make NCAA field

Wed, May 14: Big Ten tourney offers Illini chance to make NCAA field

   ANN ARBOR, Mich.  They are the hottest college baseball team in the nation, having reeled off 13 victories in a row.

   And with three more wins this week in the Big Ten tournament, they will be heading to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1990.

   Based on the conference''s tumbling stock with the NCAA selection committee the past two years, though, streaking Illinois must wonder this:

   Are three more wins its only route into the NCAA field of 48?

   Three more victories would, of course, give the 31-25 Illini the Big Ten tournament title. And with that comes the league''s automatic NCAA bid.

   For the last two years, though, that has been the Big Ten''s only bid. As Penn State discovered much to its dismay last May, even being the Big Ten''s regular season champion no longer guaranteed a spot in the national tournament. And as Illinois learned, being the Big Ten tournament runner-up didn''t exactly impress the NCAA selection committee, either.

   So expect a do-or-die urgency from four teams when the 17th annual tournament begins Thursday.

   What will it take for Illinois to emerge from this double-elimination showdown with a guaranteed bid? The following are five steps that would help the Illini make NCAA reservations:

1. Win that opener

   Ok, it''s not impossible to bounce back from an opening loss to win the tournament. But only four teams have done so in the 16-year history of the event. Lose and you need to win four in a row to claim the crown.

   In seven previous playoff appearances, Illinois has lost four openers and never bounced back for a title. But after their three opening-round wins, the Illini twice have gone on to win the Big Ten tournament.

   In this tournament, the Illini have the added challenge of playing their opener against the host team. A host team that''s furiously defended its home turf all season. Michigan is 17-4 at Ray Fisher Stadium, including 11-2 against Big Ten opponents.

   From a strategic standpoint, an opening loss immediately can skew a team''s orderly pitching plans. A pitcher originally scheduled to start the third game now is more likely to be called upon in relief for Game 2. No need to hold back the best available hurlers when you''re facing elimination.

   In contrast, an opening win gives a coach a desirable cushion with his pitching staff. If Game 2 becomes an early blowout, the coach can chalk it up as a lost cause and hold back his best remaining pitchers for the next game.

   Actually, given the impressive pitching depth Illinois has exhibited this season, it may be able to overcome an opening loss as well or better than anyone in this tournament. Still, after an opening loss, you''re now faced with needing to win four games in the next three days. Even this Illini staff likely would be stretched thin under those conditions.

2. Pop the clutch

   As you might expect during a 13-game winning streak, Illinois has been crankin'' out the hits. During their first 43 games, the Illini were hitting .290 as a team. The average is .337 in the 13 games since.

   But here are the more telling numbers: Thirty percent of the runs Illinois has scored this entire season have come in just the last 13 games (104 of 351). The Illini averaged 5.7 runs before the streak, 8.0 during it.

   Clearly, this team has made a remarkable transformation when it comes to hitting in the clutch. Guys such as Aaron Nieckula, D.J. Svihlik and Dan O''Neill have come through with men in scoring position, and, at this point, there isn''t a weak link in the batting order.

3. Everyone pitches in

   In seven seasons at Illinois, head coach Itch Jones and pitching coach Dan Hartleb have never had more pitching depth  or a better rotation  than they do now.

   The Illini can put any of four starters on the mound  Brian Hecht, Brett Weber, Cody Salter and Tom Zidlicky  with a reasonable expectation that each will keep the team in contention.

   During the 13-game winning streak, no opponent has managed more than five runs. Only four times during that stretch have UI pitchers yielded more than three runs.

   "If you remember last year''s tournament, we brought guys back on short rest to split up the final game," Hartleb said. "This year, we''re going in with four starters who have proven themselves, and we have two other guys (Travis Rehrer and Tim Lavery) who at times have done a very good job for us."

   Zidlicky has been the wild card in this mix, swinging between relief work and starting. As the lone left-hander among the top four starters, the coaches could choose to spot him in relief against left-handed hitters or start him against teams that like to load up with left-handed hitters.

4. Avoid the slugfests

   A couple of weeks ago, this would have been a no-brainer. The Illini simply weren''t showing the firepower necessary to win offensive shootouts.

   The series against Purdue and Penn State in particular showed how vulnerable Illinois was when opponents were racking up runs in double digits. The Illini went 2-6 in those two series while being outscored 80-58.

   With the offense perking up lately, Illinois would seem better able to cope with a slugfest. Still, the seasonlong impression is of a team that lacks the big boppers. In this tournament field, only Michigan has hit fewer homers this season than the Illini.

5. Find unexpected help

   In last year''s tournament, that help came from a freshman pitcher who entered with a bloated 6.00 earned run average.

   But you''d never have known it from the way Bob Burlage performed when Jones put him on the mound to start the Illini''s fourth game in three days. The right-hander wasn''t dominant, but he was tenacious. Despite give up eight hits and walking five in 62/3 innings, Burlage held eventual champion Indiana to three runs. Illinois went on to win 8-5, keeping its title hopes alive for another day.

   Jones, in his 31st season of coaching college baseball, has seen too many unexpected heroes decide tournament games not to believe it won''t happen sometime this weekend.

   "The team that''s going to win is going to have someone  whether it''s an offensive player or a pitcher  step up and give them a little more than they''ve been giving at that point," Jones said. "And that little extra gets you over the hump."

   Who might it be for the Illini in this tournament?

   That''s tough to answer because so many players have made contributions this season. All of the regulars and platoon players have had their moments. And the pitching has been good enough and deep enough lately that the lesser-used hurlers may not even make it to the mound in this tournament.

   Here are a couple of shot-in-the-dark guesses: Rehrer and Lavery. Rehrer has struck out almost a batter an inning (41 in 46 1/3). Lavery, after an extended absence for spring football, returned in the regular season finale to strike out four in two shutout innings.

Categories (3):Baseball, Illini Sports, Sports

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