The Illini baseball team begins NCAA tournament play today (1 p.m., WDWS 1400-AM) against Georgia Tech in the Nashville Regional. College baseball beat writer Jeff Huth’s storylines on Illinois’ bid to move on to the super-regionals:
Just getting started
Compared to the likes of first-round opponent Georgia Tech, which is making its 29th NCAA tournament appearance, Illinois has a spotty postseason resume. The Illini are making their 11th NCAA trip, but merely the fourth in the past 23 years. It’s encouraging, however, that this will be Illinois’ second regional appearance in three years. Encouraging, too, that the Illini made it as an at-large selection.
The NCAA selection committee always faces tough choices in filling out its 64-team bracket, and this Illini team got in the hard way rather than through their conference’s automatic bid. “That’s where I want the program to be,” eighth-year UI coach Dan Hartleb said Monday after learning his team was one of two Big Ten schools in the tournament. “I want this to be something that happens on a regular basis. And as I just told the team, I don’t want this to be a situation where we’re satisfied getting in the tournament. We’ve got to win games, and we’ve got to continue to move forward and do things to get into super- regionals, get ourselves to Omaha.”
Hitting the skids
Throughout most of Illinois’ 34-18 season, the team’s offense has been potent and reliable. Entering last week’s Big Ten tournament, the Illini were hitting .301 and averaging 6.5 runs per game. The attack hit the wall, however, at Target Field in Minneapolis, and even some stellar pitching and defense couldn’t save Illinois from being the second team to be ousted from the six-team tournament. The Illini totaled six runs while losing two of three games. Their .242 tournament batting average wasn’t terrible, but the Illini struggled mightily to come through with hits when it counted most. Illinois was 2 for 27 (.074) with runners in scoring position and stranded 29 runners in the three games. Was it just a blip on the offensive radar? Big Ten Player of the Year Justin Parr, who was named a Louisville Slugger first-team All-American on Thursday, thinks so. “You’ve got to look at the pitching we went against,” the Illini center fielder said. “We faced some great pitching in the Big Ten tournament, and we feel like our offense is still good. We can compete with any team in the country offensively.”
Illinois’ overall hitting malaise at Target Field didn’t extend to Thomas Lindauer, who continues to wield his team’s most consistent bat. The junior shortstop extended his hitting streak to a career-high 15 games while going 4 for 11 in the league tournament. The last time Lindauer was held hitless was April 26, and he’s hitting .410 during the streak, raising his season average to .313. “I’m trying to do the same thing every day — using the whole field, not getting pull-happy like I was earlier in the year when I was kind of inconsistent,” the All-Big Ten first-teamer said. “And I’m seeing the ball really well. I’m seeing it much better than I was before.” Said UI coach Dan Hartleb: “He has an idea what’s going on (at the plate) all the time. He can make adjustments. And he doesn’t let one or two at-bats affect him. He just plays the game.”
Don’t I know you?
If you spot a group of Illini chatting with a Vanderbilt player in or around Hawkins Field this weekend, chances are it’s Jared Miller. The Commodores pitcher was a teammate of four UI players last summer with the Rochester (Minn.) Honkers of the Northwoods League. Host Vanderbilt, the No. 2 national seed, is the top seed in the Nashville Regional. “He’s a fun kid,” Parr said. “It’s always fun to play against people you know. I’ve played with a lot of guys in summer ball, and I see their names popping up for their teams. It’s just cool to be a part of something a lot of good programs are a part of.” Miller was selected to the 2012 Northwoods All-Star Game, and he’s appeared in 22 games this spring for the Commodores, all in relief. The sophomore left-hander enters the regional with a 2-1 record and 2.31 ERA. Lindauer, who played for Waterloo (Iowa) in the Northwoods League last summer, was introduced to Miller by his Illini teammates and shares Parr’s impression of the fun-loving hurler. “He’s hilarious,” Lindauer said. “Kind of loud, but it’s a funny loud so you can’t be mad about that.”
Voice of experience
Davis Hendrickson is one of seven players on the Illini’s 27-man regional roster who played in the 2011 NCAA tournament. The trip to Fullerton, Calif., two years ago remains one of the highlights of his career. The senior right fielder hit a team-best .417 (5 for 12) with two doubles, a triple and three RBI in four games at the Fullerton Regional and was named to the all-regional team. Hendrickson also turned in his team’s most important defensive play of the regional, leaving his feet for a full-extension, inning-ending catch with two runners on base and Illinois trailing Cal State Fullerton 4-1 in an elimination game. The momentum-changing grab spurred the Illini to a come-from-behind 7-5 win. “It was one of the best times of my baseball career to this point,” Hendrickson said. “Hopefully I can just play well again and do everything I can to help the team win while we’re there.” With the majority of current Illini players entering their first NCAA tournament, Hendrickson can offer some advice based on his previous regional experience. “Don’t let the big moment get the best of you,” the Macomb native said. “I remember I was really nervous my first couple of at-bats at the regional, and then I ended up settling in and having a good tournament. But my advice would be to go out and do your thing. It doesn’t matter if it’s televised, how many people are there, how many people are heckling you, rooting against you. Just play your game.”