Illinois baseball cruising through winning streak

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Illinois’ Pat Mclnerney takes a swing at the ball during the baseball game vs. Indiana at Illinois Field on Saturday. Illinois won 6-3.

By Joey Figueroa

Despite not losing a game in almost a month, the Illinois baseball team hadn’t been on top of the Big Ten standings all season. That is, until this past Sunday.

With Iowa’s 4-1 loss to Northwestern on Sunday, Illinois now sits alone at the top of the conference standings. The Illini improved their conference record to 10-1 with two wins against Indiana over the weekend and are yet to lose a Big Ten series.

Head coach Dan Hartleb stressed that he wants the Illini to focus on their own games rather than the standings, but Illinois’ first Big Ten championship since 2011 remains the end goal.

“It sure beats being at the bottom,” Hartleb said. “That’s what guys work for every day. That’s why you go out and recruit as a coaching staff, and that’s why you go through the fall practices and the early morning lifts. It’s a grind.”

At 10-2, the Hawkeyes are just a game behind the Illini. The Big Ten’s top two teams won’t meet each other this season, so the only way Illinois can separate itself even further is by winning its remaining Big Ten games.

“We just do what we can control,” said sophomore outfielder Pat McInerney. “It’s unfortunate we don’t get to play them, and we do kind of keep up with what they’re doing, but it’s not really between us and Iowa. It’s between us and the team we’re playing.”

As Illinois’ lead in the standings grows, so may its 13-game winning streak — the longest active streak in the nation.

Much has been made of the streak, but the Illini are embracing it rather than letting it become a distraction.

“The streak’s been fun,” said sophomore shortstop Adam Walton. “Any time you can win this many games in a row, you just have fun with it and try to keep it going.”

Since its last loss at the end of March, Illinois has outscored its opponents 104-45 but is winning in many different ways. Neither the batting nor the pitching has dominated every game, so Illinois is winning slugfests as well as pitching duels. During the streak, the offense has scored as many 17 runs and as few as two, while the pitching staff has given up as many as 10 runs, while allowing as few as one.

Even if they fall behind in a game, the Illini have enough confidence in each other to still believe they’ll win in any circumstances, which is a large reason why Illinois has 15 comeback wins this season.

“We put ourselves in the position to win pretty much every game,” said senior starter Drasen Johnson. “Even when we’re down, we still have the confidence, since were winning so much, to believe that we can come back and win the game.”

The excitement surrounding the winning streak has brought record crowds to Illinois Field. While the buzz surrounding the team is merited, McInerney said the team shouldn’t take it too seriously.

“That’s baseball, no one’s going to win every game,” McInerney said. “You come to the ballpark every day thinking you’re going to win, but one of these days, we’re not going to win and it’s not going to be the end of the world.”

Illinois will look to avoid McInerney’s prediction of an eventual loss when Eastern Illinois comes to town on Tuesday night.

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