OXFORD, Miss. — Two weeks ago Illinois baseball won its 36th game. The 5-3 win at Michigan State clinched the series against the Spartans and marked the sixth straight series victory for the Illini to end Big Ten play.
That was also the last win of the season. The Illini’s trip to Omaha, Neb., was a short one with losses to Maryland and Michigan for a quick, 0-2 exit. Their trip to Oxford for NCAA regional play didn’t last any longer.
Facing elimination in Saturday’s noon game against Jacksonville State, Illinois faltered. A 4-0 lead evaporated, was regained and then disappeared again as the Gamecocks finished off their 7-5 comeback victory to end the Illini’s season.
"We just went on a little bit of a skid," Illinois coach Dan Hartleb said about his team’s 0-4 finish. "I could go back to each and every game and say, ‘There’s this play or we did this or didn’t do that.’ It’s part of it. It’s not the easy part.
"You get into tournament play, and the ante is a little higher. We just weren’t able to rise to that occasion. I thought we played hard — I thought we played to win — but we just couldn’t come up with the key hits or pitches."
Andy Fisher made all the key pitches through the first six innings. Illinois’ redshirt senior lefty ace scattered two hits and struck out six as he put together the workings of another quality start and had set down 11 straight Jacksonville State batters entering the seventh. Four hits later — including a pair of two-run home runs — and the game was tied.
Centennial grad and redshirt freshman first baseman Kellen Sarver put Illinois back on top on the first pitch of the eighth inning with a solo home run. It wasn’t a big enough cushion. Jacksonville State got to first Ryan Schmitt and then Big Ten saves leader Garrett Acton in the bottom half of the inning for three more runs and a lead that held up for the Gamecocks’ first-ever NCAA regional win in program history.
"One of the great things to me about our team this year is when things don’t look real good they hang in there and they keep trying to find a way," Jacksonville State coach Jim Case said. "After six innings or so (Saturday), things looked kind of rough, but they hung in there and exploded. … I think it just shows a lot that our guys are going to hang in there and play for 27 outs.
"We’ve won a lot of games late. I wish we didn’t. I wish we’d played a little bit better earlier and wasn’t in that position, but it’s a good feeling to know there’s confidence we can come back."
Jacksonville State will try and keep its season alive in today’s elimination game. Illinois, meanwhile, made the 7 1/2 hour bus trip back to Champaign disappointed, but trying not to let one final loss stand in place of a strong season.
"That play is not going to define the game and not going to define our season," junior second baseman Michael Massey said of Andrew Naismith’s pinch-hit double that put Jacksonville State ahead for the second time in the eighth inning. "We had plenty of opportunities to score runs. We just didn’t get it done, and that’s part of baseball."
Massey’s Illinois career all but concluded at Mississippi’s Swayze Field. The Palos Park native is ranked as a top-200 draft prospect, making a pro career his next step. Illinois will also move on in 2020 having graduated 14 seniors this spring.
"This group did a tremendous job of getting us back where we’re getting some national recognition and put us back in the spotlight," Hartleb said. "We’ll build on that with the young guys."
Hartleb still considered Illinois’ 36-21 season a success. The Illini finished tied for third in the Big Ten — even after a 1-5 start to conference play — and got back to the NCAA tournament after a three-year absence.
"There’s only two times you don’t end with a loss," Hartleb said. "You either win the national championship or you don’t make your tournament and win the last game of the year. In most situations you end on losses, and it’s always difficult. Obviously, in the tournaments, we did not play as well as we probably could have and made too many mistakes against good teams. Those things bite you.
"We were able to get back in the NCAA tournament. We played at a much higher level. We’ve made a lot of strides from where we were a couple years ago. It’s something that is key for our young guys to understand what it takes to play at this level. Now that they have a taste of it, I expect to be back with them."