Baseball ready for Big Ten Tournament

When the Illinois baseball team lost the first game of a doubleheader at home to Michigan State on April 23 to fall to 12-21 on the season, many of the players realized that their hopes of a Big Ten regular season championship were quickly fading. The Illini had won back-to-back games just three times all season and were just 4-6 to kick off their Big Ten schedule.

“Coming into the year we did have high expectations, we did think that we had the ability to do this, but when we were 12-21, I couldn’t tell you that I thought we were going to do it,” first baseman Matt Dittman said.

Ever since that point, though, the Illini have kicked it into high gear. The team has won five straight series while compiling a 13-4 record in that span. They also finished with a 15-9 record in the Big Ten to capture a share of the conference regular season title.

“This team stuck together, and we stuck with it all year, and the result was a Big Ten championship. That was awesome,” second baseman Pete Cappetta said.

With a 25-25 overall record, the Illini will still likely need to win the Big Ten tournament if they hope to earn a spot in the NCAA Regionals.

However, Cappetta is confident that the team is capable of doing just that and earning their first NCAA bid since 2000. Illinois enters the Big Ten tournament as the No. 1 overall seed and will play Thursday night.

“I think almost every cylinder of our team is just running pretty smooth right now,” Cappetta said. “It seems like we’re getting good starting pitching and our bullpen is coming in and doing a good job. Our offense has been clicking for the past few weeks now. I think that it took a while for it all to come together, but it’s definitely coming on at the right time.”

Dittman is a big part of the surging offense. He was named the Big Ten Player of the Week after hitting .600 with five RBIs and a walk-off home run in the Illini’s weekend sweep of the Hoosiers. Dittman attributed the hot-hitting to a change he made in his swing.

“I actually made a mechanical adjustment last week in my swing at Purdue, and I just felt dramatically different,” he said. “I carried that over into the weekend, and when you have that going for you, you have a lot of confidence at the plate. That’s exactly how I felt.”

While offense will certainly be key to Illinois’ success, head coach Dan Hartleb said the Illini will need to be successful in every facet of the game if they want to keep playing into the postseason.

“We need to play all three aspects well as far as pitching, hitting and defense,” Hartleb said. “We can’t be lacking in one and still win it. We need to play very consistent and fundamental baseball.”

Dittman said that while he knows the team has already accomplished plenty, there will be no complacency among the Illini.

“Fact is, we’re playing well right now. We’ve won our last five series, and we’re gonna continue this roll into the tournament. We know that it’s a lot of work left to do,” Dittman said.