Illini of the Week May 6: Illinois baseball team

By Joey Figueroa

Editors Note: The Daily Illini sports desk sits down on Sunday nights and decides which Illinois athlete or coach is our Illini of the Week. Athletes and coaches are evaluated by individual performance and contribution to team success.

It’s been a while since the Illinois baseball team lost a game. In fact, the last time the Illini lost, it was 37 degrees outside, spring break had just ended and final exams were simply a distant threat. Heck, the newest royal princess wasn’t even alive yet.

Much has changed since Illinois lost 5-2 to Michigan State on March 29. But what hasn’t changed is the number in the Illini’s loss column.

After that loss to the Spartans over a month ago, the Illini responded with two wins in two days and have not stopped from there. A school-record 21 consecutive wins later, Illinois has the best winning percentage (40-6-1) in the nation, is no lower than eighth among all major national rankings and is in position to lock down one of just eight national seeds for the NCAA tournament, which begins May 29, two months to the day since the Illini last lost.

All season, the Illini players have said they go into every game expecting to win, but with the streak growing as large as it has, some wins deserve double takes.

“It’s gotten to a point after some games where we look back and wonder how we just pulled that one off,” senior first baseman David Kerian said. “But it’s fun. After every game, we have a good time and celebrate the win, but after an hour or so, we forget about it and try to move on to the next game.”

Throughout the streak, the Illini have outscored their opponents 161-65 and have won in many different ways.

They’ve blown out opponents, but have also won nine games decided by three runs or fewer. They’ve come out on top in the slugfests when they gave up as many as 10 runs, and they’ve prevailed in the pitching duels during which they were held to as little two runs. They’ve won four extra-inning thrillers, have 13 comeback victories and have done it all with the poise of a professional ball club.

Illinois seems to have found the perfect balance of hustle and composure when it comes to how the team approaches each game. It’s a team that doesn’t panic and has been praised for its maturity by head coach Dan Hartleb.

“You can play at a very high level and not win games, and I think this group is smart and mature enough to understand that,” Hartleb said. “We’ve been fortunate to be able to go on this long streak and do a lot of things well and find ways to win games.”

Illinois has won a school-record 15 straight conference games, and all six of its Big Ten series this season, five of which were sweeps — another school record.

The Illini cemented the legitimacy of their steady success with their recent sweep of Ohio State — arguably the most talented team they’ve faced since taking two of three games against Oklahoma State early in the season. Not being in a conference particularly known for its baseball prowess, Illinois hasn’t received the type of national praise expected of a team on this type of run. National media flooded Columbus, Ohio, last weekend, though, and saw just how good the Illini are.

Hartleb was happy with how his team performed under the spotlight.

“To continue to play well and then to do it in front of all the national media was a plus,” Hartleb said. “I think we gained respect across the country because some of the major baseball writers were there for the games. They saw our talent level and they saw the execution and energy our team plays with.”

The doubters remain, though. Many are skeptical of Illinois’ level of competition, but the Illini are 6-1 against teams in the top 25 of the RPI, which is the best mark in the nation. Going even further, Illinois is 10-3 against teams in the top 50 of the RPI — a mark better than powerhouses like Florida, Miami and TCU.

Illinois has six more regular season games to continue to prove the critics wrong and build on its 1 1/2 game lead over Iowa in the Big Ten standings. As far as the streak goes, the Illini are 13 wins away from the all-time record of 34 wins, shared by Texas and Florida Atlantic.

That 34th-straight win could come in the midst of a national championship run.

“We’re a legit team right now,” Kerian said. “There’s still doubters out there, we know, but we’re going to keep playing the same way we’ve been playing all year. We just (have to) go out there and prove to the country that we’re a quality team and can play against anybody.”

Whether or not Illinois ever loses again, it is a team on a special run and has the opportunity to go where no Illinois team has gone before — Omaha, Nebraska, for the College World Series.

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@joeyfigueroa3