Two series left for Illini with two bids in sight

Two series left for Illini with two bids in sight

CHAMPAIGN — Illinois baseball has crafted a legitimate NCAA tournament résumé this season.

The Illini's play in the last month, including four straight Big Ten series wins to reach 31-16 overall and 10-8 in the conference, has also helped ensure all the work Dan Hartleb's team put in during the first half of the season wasn't for naught.

A 17-4 start in the first month-and-a-half of the season laid the foundation for that résumé, built on the strength of individual winning streaks of six and seven games. A 1-5 start to Big Ten play as part of a larger 3-7 stretch through the end of March and into April was a serious hiccup.

The head-scratching nonconference losses haven't been totally eradicated, with 12-8 and 12-3 defeats at Bradley and Southern Illinois, respectively, in the last two weeks. But those four consecutive Big Ten series victories — including this past weekend against No. 19 Indiana — have righted the Illini ship for the stretch run.

"You look at any sport, all seasons, and there's ups and downs," Hartleb said. "We played at a high level early. I wouldn't say we played poorly during the middle, but there were a number of things we didn't execute. We're starting to execute better now."

Redshirt junior first baseman/outfielder Casey Dodge said Illinois' energy and focus has improved in the last several weeks. That's helped the Illini rack up those Big Ten series victories against Minnesota, Penn State, Nebraska and Indiana.

"There were some road trips and series that we seemed to be in a little bit of a lull, but these last few weeks we've really competed our butts off," said Dodge, who homered Sunday against the Hoosiers. "We've been working hard to make sure we're well prepared for these games."

That preparation has included the Illini simplifying their approach. It's something they were able to do successfully early in the season.

"We're not taking these elaborate approaches or trying to do too much on the mound or at the plate," junior second baseman Michael Massey said. "We're trusting one another and understanding if we don't get it done, the guy behind us is going to get it done. I think that's been the biggest change."

Illinois is on solid NCAA tournament ground with just two Big Ten regular-season series to play. Remaining there is predicated by a strong finish to Big Ten action with a final home series starting Friday night against Purdue and a road trip to Michigan State from May 16-18 capping the regular season.

Both series remain important with what Illinois hopes is the first of two trips to Omaha, Neb., on the line. Eight teams make the Big Ten tournament, which is back in Omaha this year in advance of the College World Series. Just five games separate second-place Indiana and 11th-place Ohio State in the Big Ten standings. Illinois is in sixth by itself.

"We've got a lot of work to do," Hartleb said. "We need to play at a high level. You can't look at the uniform or the record. You've just got to go out and play at that high level. We need to go out and win games."

The latest NCAA tournament projections have Illinois as a No. 2 seed and headed south. Baseball America projects the Illini in the Vanderbilt regional, while D1Baseball has them headed to Louisville.

Enough wins in the final two weeks of the regular season and Big Ten tournament? Well, Illinois' résumé might wind up strong enough for a No. 1 seed and the right to host an NCAA regional at Illinois Field. The Illini are currently ranked 18th in the RPI with the 34th toughest schedule in the country. Their nonconference RPI is third (with the 13th toughest slate of games), and they're 12-5 against teams ranked in the top 50 of the RPI.

"Illinois has been red-hot the past few weeks," D1Baseball's Kendall Rogers wrote after the Illini beat Indiana State on Wednesday and clinched the series against Indiana on Saturday. "Illinois is also trending upward in the league standings. The Illini could hop into the top 16 hosting mix with a strong finish to the regular season. Stay tuned."

Illinois last hosted an NCAA regional in 2015. The Illini won that regional — part of their record-setting 50-win season — before losing to Vanderbilt in the Super Regional, also at Illinois Field.

"It would be nice," Hartleb said about the potential to host, "but we can't look ahead to that. If you don't win games, it doesn't matter. We've just got to concentrate on what we can control, and that's each and every game."