Illini improve on Hartleb’s 3 keys to success over break

Dan Hartleb has three keys for his Illinois baseball team to be successful moving forward this year.

“I want to see us continue to play well defensively, I want to see us do a better job in situational hitting, and I want to see us be solid and very competitive out of the bullpen,” the head coach said. “We need to be consistent in those areas.”

Hartleb said his squad made “great strides” in those areas on its spring break trek to Winter Haven, Fla., where, after a loss to open the trip, the Illini won five straight games to even their record up to 8-8 on the season.

That lone defeat came in a sloppy 8-7 contest against Bucknell on March 18 in which Illinois committed four errors. The Illini made two more miscues the next day in a close win against Akron but closed out the trip by committing just two errors in their final four games.

“I felt we improved, which was the thing we set out to do each day. I was really pleased with the end of the trip that we played well defensively because that’s an area we struggled in (early this year),” said Hartleb, who added the Illini had numerous occasions during their first three weekend road trips of the year in which they didn’t make routine plays that “cost us games.”

Against Dartmouth on Wednesday, it was a routine play that sealed a 4-3 Illinois win. With a runner on third with one out and the Illini leading by one in the bottom of the final inning, reliever Bryan Roberts induced a ground ball to first base, and Craig Lutes threw home to cut down the tying run.

Picking up the win in that contest was Mike Sterk, who has stepped up out of the bullpen for Hartleb. The senior reliever is 3-0 with a 2.61 ERA on the season, and he picked up two wins in his three scoreless relief appearances on the spring break trip.

While Sterk was strong, the rest of the bullpen was up and down. In an 8-6 win against Dartmouth to close the trip, Brian de la Torriente and Wes Braun gave up a combined five runs while recording just one out in the final inning before Corey Kimes got the save with the winning runs on base.

While Hartleb was pleased with the improved play of his squad, some of the older players touched on the mental importance of the wins.

“I think there’s a lot more confidence. We got some wins together. Although we played some tougher teams earlier in the year, I think overall for a younger team it’s important to get some wins,” senior designated hitter Mike Giller said.

For the six-game trip, Illinois averaged 7.8 runs per game. The Illini also improved on the situational hitting that Hartleb stressed, as they struck out just a combined five times in their last two games of the trip, both wins against Dartmouth.

“We dug ourselves a hole and now we’re out of it, back to .500. We’ve built some confidence going into the conference season. We’ve got a little roll now, we’ve just got to keep it going,” junior outfielder Casey McMurray said.