(Photo via the Daily Illini, seen here)
Last week, I talked with Coach Greg Beals at Ohio State breaking down the Buckeye’s improvement this season. The Buckeyes are not the only Big Ten team to take a big leap this season—the Illinois Fighting Illini also did not make the Big Ten tournament last year, but coming into the final weekend of the season the Illini are sitting on the bubble of an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.
Under coach Dan Hartleb, the Illini have established themselves on the national scene. Since 2011, they’ve made three NCAA tournaments, including a 50-win season in 2015 ending in a super regional appearance. But last year’s 23-28 season did not come as a total surprise.
“If you look at where we were a year ago, I thought we’d go through some struggles,” Hartleb said. “We were playing inexperienced guys—a lot of true freshmen. It was a growing year. You fast forward to this year, I told them this group has never won at this level. I told them I thought we had a very good reputation nationally, but the group had done nothing to earn that reputation. Now it was time for them to go out and earn that.”
The Illini started their 2018 season a modest 3-3, but in the first weekend in March they ran through a non-conference series in Minnesota, sweeping a trio of Pac-12 teams, including a pair of top-50 RPI wins in UCLA and Arizona.
“The non-con sweep set the tone for this season,” Hartleb said. “We played really good teams, and our guys played well as a team. That gave us the confidence that we could beat anybody.”
That series started a 14-3 March for the Illini and earned them a week in the top 25. The Illini have been a powerful offense all year long, led by junior slugger Bren Spillane. Spillane leads the nation with a .954 slugging percentage, and is third in the country with 20 home runs.
Spillane battled injury last year, and that limited him to just 36 games. He was still productive, with a .295 average and five home runs, but there was still something missing from Spillane’s game.
“He didn’t have that swagger,” Hartleb said. “I noticed that early this season and I said Bren, ‘You’re capable of being one of the best players in college baseball. You need to start walking around and acting like it. Trust who you are, trust your ability, and trust that you prepared so well. Just go out there and play your game and have fun.’”
Overshadowed by Spillane’s dominance, the improvement on the mound has been the backbone of the Illini’s improvement. Last year, the Illini pitching staff had a 5.83 ERA which was third worst in the Big Ten. This year, the Illini have shaved almost two runs off that ERA, and at 3.97, place fourth in the conference.
The Illini are second-to last in the Big Ten in strikeouts, but that’s not a concern for Hartleb. With the best fielding percentage in the conference, the Illini can preach a pitch-to-contact strategy and generate success.
“A year ago they went through a lot of frustrations,” Hartleb said. “Now they’re understanding that the game’s made for the ball to be put into play, and understanding that you’re not going to blow the ball by people. I’m pleased with the progress from last year to this year, but there’s a lot of things that could be even better.”
Despite the improvement, the Illini still have plenty of work to do in the stretch run. There are potentially six Big Ten teams that could make the NCAA tournament, but the Illini will need some wins against Nebraska followed by some success in the Big Ten Tournament to lock up an at-large bid.
“I’ve been in this league a long time and this is far and away the best this conference has ever been,” Hartleb said. “There’s no gimmie weekends. Even the teams that are down towards the bottom right now, you really have to play well to go in and beat those teams. It’s fun. Competition should drive great players, and we continue to gain respect across the country, and I think it’s well deserved because we have teams that can play with anybody.”