By the time this baseball season is complete, the most successful team in the state of Illinois just may be the University of Illinois Fighting Illini. The #12 ranked Illini are off to their best start in school history. After a win on Sunday against the Purdue Boilermakers, the Illini have now won an impressive nine games in a row. The secret of their success is simple; solid pitching and overall team balance. The results just may lead to the best season in school history, with a potential trip to Omaha and the College World Series in realistic sight.
After Sunday’s victory, Illinois now stands at 28-6-1, and currently tied atop the Big Ten standings. It is their best record after 35 games in school history. Having won 15 of their last 17 games, the Illini are outscoring their opponents 84-37 in that stretch. The #12 ranking is the team’s highest since 1962, and they are ranked in all six of the major college polls.
Head coach Dan Hartleb has seen the Illini win in all phases of the game. On offense, he has his squad near the top of many statistical categories. Illinois has seven starters hitting over .300, and they currently rank 2nd in the conference in batting average, home runs, runs, and walks. In his 10th year as head coach, Hartleb has recorded over 300 victories which is fourth most in school history.
For as solid as the offense has been, the pitching may be even better for the Illini. Heading into Sunday, the staff leads the Big Ten in ERA at 2.58, and second in strikeouts with 271. The staff is led by a dominant and stingy trio of arms in juniors Kevin Duchene and Tyler Jay, and senior Drasen Johnson. Duchene’s 0.75 ERA and Jay’s 0.79 ERA are currently second and third respectively in the NCAA. Duchene has been at the top of his game and is currently the reigning conference player of the week for the Big Ten. At the back end, Jay is the closer who has been shutting the door all season long, and has recently been added to the midseason watch list for the Golden Spikes Award.
Sunday’s starter Johnson earned his 5th win of the season with a strong eight inning outing. In the early going, he was able to escape a few jams, then found his groove by retiring the final 12 batters faced. That run started when he was faced with runners at second and third with nobody out in the 5th inning. With his senior leadership, Johnson leads the staff in innings pitched. All three pitchers this season have avoided major mistakes. The key factor can be directed toward their strikeout to walk ratio. Duchene has a 53:4 mark, Jay a 39:3 mark, and after Sunday Johnson stands at a 44:8 ratio. While this season has seen home runs and batting average go up with the input of a more flat-seamed baseball, these three have bucked that trend when out on the bump.
In talking to Duchene, his command has been on point all season long, especially with his off speed stuff, and has found no trouble in adjusting to the new style flat-seamed game ball put in place by the NCAA this season. In the NCAA landscape where runs, home runs, and ERA are all up across the country, his numbers certainly defy those trends. “My number one thing is to focus every time out” he says. “This team has been balanced and together all season long. It is just great to pitch for this team. We knew coming into the season that we were going to be good, and have a chance to do something special.”
For every college team, the ultimate goal is to travel the road to Omaha and reach the College World Series. That goal is certainly front and center for this Illini team. “We receive weekly emails from one of our directors that it is x amount of miles to Omaha, and we believe that the destination can be reached.” Illinois also has the opportunity to host an NCAA regional come tournament time, which would be a huge deal for this program.
Riding a consistent wave of strong play, this team is that good. With every time out seemingly setting a new record, this Illini team is one to keep track of as the road to Omaha and the NCAA Baseball tournament gets closer. It is about 490 miles from Champaign, Illinois to Omaha, and with each victory the Fighting Illini are getting closer to reaching that ultimate destination.