Tie(breaker) doesn't go to Illini
CHAMPAIGN — It was the tiebreaker that had the Illinois baseball team fit to be tied.
Losers of their regular season finale against Minnesota on Saturday, the Illini finished in a three-way tie for sixth place in the Big Ten Conference with the Gophers and Ohio State at 11-13.
Only one of those three teams could advance to the league's six-team tournament next week.
It isn't Illinois.
"When you control your own destiny, you wish you could control the outcome, too," Illini designated hitter Thomas Shelton said after an 8-3 loss at Illinois Field.
Indeed, the Illini would now be making plans to travel to Columbus, Ohio, for the tournament had they again defeated the Gophers to complete a three-game sweep.
Instead, they were knocked out by a tiebreaker process forced to go three steps deep to settle the identity of the tournament's sixth seed.
"We had opportunities to win other (Big Ten) games, so you can't blame it on how the book is laid out," Illini coach Dan Hartleb said. "But it's something I think we need to look at as a coaching group."
What Hartleb will ask his league peers to examine is this: Illinois won series against Ohio State and Minnesota. Yet, the Buckeyes earned the final tournament berth based on the third tiebreaker for three-way ties: record against common Big Ten opponents. By that measure, Ohio State was 10-8, the Illini 9-9.
"I was aware of all the tiebreakers," Hartleb said, "but when you're actually put in that situation and there's a chance that ... the team that goes ahead of you is the team you beat head-to-head, that's kind of tough for everybody to swallow."
The three-way tiebreaker process begins with a form of head-to-head — based on a team's combined record against the other two teams. However, Illinois and Ohio State each had 4-2 records by that measure because the Buckeyes swept their series against Minnesota.
Tiebreaker No. 2 is record versus the league's top six teams (plus ties). Again, this didn't settle things, with the Illini and Ohio State each going 8-13.
That left it to tiebreaker No. 3, which knocked Illinois out despite having gone 2-1 against both the Buckeyes and Gophers.
"It's something I think we need to talk about as a coaches group," Hartleb repeated.
The talk of Saturday's Illini-Gopher game was pitcher Austin Lubinsky (4-4). The right-hander held Illinois to four hits in the first seven innings, leaving with one out in the eighth with Minnesota ahead 4-1.
"He was mixing his pitches; he was throwing everything for strikes," Illini center fielder Willie Argo said. "He pitched really well, so you've got to give him credit."
Illinois (28-25) drew within 4-3 in the eighth on Shelton's two-run double off reliever Tom Windle. But Minnesota (29-27) broke the game open with four runs in the ninth off Matt Milroy.who was in his fifth inning of relief.
The big blow was a one-out, three-run double Dan Olinger — the last batter Milroy faced.
"The reason I left him in is I still thought he was a guy he could get us a double-play ball just with his velocity and his sharpness to his breaking pitch," Hartleb said. "He just elevated two pitches at the wrong time."