Tate | Seasoned Illini ballplayers suited for success in final NCAA campaign

Tate | Seasoned Illini ballplayers suited for success in final NCAA campaign

The gritty members of Dan Hartleb's 36-19 baseball team have known disappointment.

It's built into the game. Good hitters are retired two-thirds of the time. Injuries happen. And slumps.

Of 22 key Illini producers, 13 have either redshirted, transferred in or otherwise been delayed. Of those 22 members, 19 are at least 20 years old with ace lefty Andy Fisher a grizzled 23, five-tool center fielder Zac Taylor also 23, standout right fielder Jack Yalowitz 22 and, of course, Marine veteran Josh Harris 25.

These guys grinded through another wet, bitter spring when they should have been employing umbrellas and overcoats. In better weather, this talented group would have drawn big crowds from fans anxious to shake the winter doldrums.

Using southern successes to help build a 16-5 start, they hit an unexpected wall in the opening Big Ten series at Iowa, blowing a 4-3 lead (five walks in the eighth inning will do that) in the opener, and then falling 2-1 and 3-1 as every liner seemed to find a Hawkeye glove (and a cross-eyed umpire called Jeff Korte for blocking the plate on a routine tag).

So, fast forward ahead, the Illini found themselves 1-5 and out of the Big Ten title race, after which they won the next six weekend series to finish third at 15-9. They were 18-4 at home and stood atop the Big Ten in ranking (No. 20) and RPI, and even with sure-handed shortstop Ben Troike sidelined, held a league-games record for defense (.987) when they entered the conference tournament in Omaha, Neb.

Tough luck in loss to Wolverines

Don't ask what happened there. And especially don't ask Hartleb. Cast into the loser's bracket after Maryland's two eighth-inning homers off Louisville transfer Sean Leland, the Illini returned Thursday morning for a short-lived celebration of a double play that seemingly nullified a bases-loaded scare, and sent them into the eighth inning with a 3-0 lead against Michigan.

Only to have the bang-bang out-call at first base reversed on TV review! And if letting Michigan tie it 3-3 wasn't disheartening enough, Illinois slipped back ahead 4-3 only to see the nation's No. 1 closer, Garrett Acton, come within one strike of wrapping it up in the ninth.

Hey, nobody's perfect. Acton has given up hits before. He had a 6.12 ERA at Saint Louis in 2017, and posted a mere 2-3 record at Parkland last year. Always cast in the most pressurized spot this season, he has three losses alongside his nation-leading 19 saves. But 19 saves! That's a lot.

So you're saying there's a chance

OK, remember this, you basketball hounds. A week later, nobody can recall what happens in a Power 5 conference tournament. It's all about March Madness, or in this case, June Lunacy. And few sports produce such haphazard results as baseball.

So wherever they wind up Friday in the field of 64 — we'll know the location and foe on Monday — I like their chances.

I like their chances because they're overdue for some good fortune. This isn't a squad of Joe Btfsplk walking around under a perpetual dark cloud (Joe passed with Li'l Abner in 1979).

I like their chances because Fisher, the blond southpaw, is deadly against lefties with a sweeping curve that he can control. With his two seasons at Eastern Illinois a distance memory, he has given up three runs or fewer in 12 consecutive starts. If you saw him here against Indiana's power bats on May 3 (a 4-0 shutout), you appreciate how far he has come.

I like their chances because, if Fisher can prevail one more time, pitching coach Drew Dickinson has three legit starters (Wisconsinites Ty Weber and Cyrillo Watson, and St. Joseph's transfer Quinn Snarskis) primed for the double-elimination durability test ... with Acton waiting to close.

I like their chances because 2-3 hitters Michael Massey and Taylor are fully healthy after earlier problems. And because Centennial's own Kellen Sarver, who sat out 2018 while Bren Spillane went on a 23-home run binge as the first baseman, rebounded from a late-season slump with two RBI in the cleanup slot on Thursday.

And mostly I like their chances because they have so many seniors. In baseball, young guys get better as they get older. As an example, fifth-year senior Grant Van Scoy has added 113 points to his 2018 batting average, grabbing the team lead at .347.

For most of them, including likely junior draftee Massey, this is their last collegiate go-around. I like their chances.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com.

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