CHAMPAIGN — It was one game out of 24 on their Big Ten schedule. One series out of eight on the conference slate.
Just another day at the office Sunday at Illinois Field?
Not for an Illinois baseball team scrambling to get its act together with time running out in the Big Ten race.
“We’ve put ourselves in a position where every game is important,” Illini third baseman Brandon Hohl said.
“You lose this one,” Illini coach Dan Hartleb said, “and you fall below .500 in the conference with only three weekends to go. It was a huge game for us.”
Which made the outcome — a come-from-behind 5-3 victory against Northwestern — a huge step that Illinois hopes will lead to a berth in the six-team Big Ten tournament next month in Minneapolis.
Winning a conference series for merely the second time in five tries, the Illini (26-13) now are tied for sixth place with Michigan at 8-7. Three series remain for Illinois, including two on the road — both against teams ahead of them in the standings.
“It’s big to get the series victory,” said Hohl, whose sacrifice fly capped a four-run rally in the seventh inning against the Wildcats (18-17, 7-11 Big Ten). “We need to get the wins when we can get them, at home especially.”
Fourth-year starter Hohl and other returning Illini players learned the hard way last season just how much difference one game — one loss — can make. Finishing in a three-way tie for sixth place in the Big Ten, Illinois failed to get into the conference tournament when it was eliminated by the third tiebreaker in the league rule book.
“There were probably a few games last year that we should have won that would have helped us out,” Hohl said. “That’s why every game is important in the Big Ten.”
Hartleb indicated there’s no need for him to bring up last year’s excruciatingly close miss to emphasize how critical any given Big Ten game might turn out to be.
“I don’t say one word to them; they (already) know that,” the Illini coach said. “That’s what the upperclassmen are for. There are certain things that they have to take care of within the clubhouse that they bring up.
“They know how important it is, and they know what it felt like staying home last year. And a lot of those guys are the same guys that were in the (NCAA) regionals the year before, so we don’t have to say anything.”
Hartleb does have a lot to say about his conference and where it stacks up against past versions since he joined the Illini coaching staff in 1991 as an assistant.
“I think this is the best the conference has ever been since I’ve been here,” he said. “In 23 years, I think it’s the best.”
Hartleb cited predictions he has seen that as many as four Big Ten teams will make it into the 2013 NCAA tournament. In the NCAA’s most recent Rating Percentage Index — released April 23 — five teams from the conference were ranked from No. 14 to No. 48 (Illinois).
“We know how hard it is to get into the (Big Ten) tournament alone, just because there’s a lot of good teams this year,” Hartleb said. “I think we’re a pretty good team, and yet it’s a battle every single day. It’s not like you go roll over anybody in this conference. You have to play well, and you have to do things to win. There’s never a day off.
“So I believe this conference is better than it’s been since I’ve been here.”
With road series against streaking Michigan State and first-place Minnesota still ahead, Illinois has an opportunity to prove it belongs with the league’s elite. Hartleb wouldn’t speculate on what kind of record it would take for his Illini to get into the Big Ten tournament. At this point, the Illini coach is strictly in tunnel-vision mode.
“I know where we are in the standings, but I really haven’t studied it because all I care about is taking care of business and us winning games,” Hartleb said. “If we do that, then I’ll live with whatever happens.”
The stretch run
A look at the Illini baseball team’s remaining Big Ten series:
May 3-5 at Michigan State
Fifth-place Spartans swept Big Ten favorite Indiana, are 5-1 in last six league games.
May 10-12 Penn State
Last-place Nittany Lions have been swept in four of five conference series
May 16-18 at Minnesota
First-place Gophers have won all four league series they’ve played.
AT THE PLATE
Illini center fielder Justin Parr went 2 for 3 to extend his school-record hitting streak to 27 games. The Big Ten record of 41 games was set by Penn State’s Michael Campo in 2000.
AT THE PLATE II
You’d never know that Northwestern leadoff batter Trevor Stevens was hitting .191 in 15 Big Ten games entering the weekend by the way he treated Illini pitching. The fifth-year senior shortstop went 9 for 15 (.600) with a double, home run and two RBI. He also was hit by a pitch.
ON THE MOUND
Winning pitcher Ronnie Muck, who entered in the fifth inning with one out and runners on second and third, escaped that jam without allowing a run and kept Illinois within 2-0 of the Wildcats. In two appearances in the series, the junior right-hander yielded no earned runs in 51/3 innings.
ON THE BASES
Michael Hurwitz’s aggressive base running sparked a four-run Illini rally in the seventh. After hitting an RBI single, the DH churned toward second on the throw back to the infield. Hurwitz drew a throw that was dropped by second baseman Kyle Ruchim for an error, allowing a second run to score and Hurwitz to advance to third.
The Illini will face Southern Illinois at 6:05 p.m. Tuesday in a nonconference game at Illinois Field. Illinois went 3-0 against the Salukis (20-23) in mid-March, with the first two games played in Carbondale and the third in Marion.