One of my all-time favorite shows is a show that ran for three seasons on ABC called "Happy Endings." Very "Friends"-like premise save for the fact that show opens with one member of the group, Dave, getting left at the altar by his fiance', Alex.
Cut to a montage of Dave driving around in a Prius weeping uncontrollably and later wearing Alex's bathrobe and eating "most of the world's largest chocolate bride, but leaving the hand...to hold."
When the gang finally catch up with him, they find his thank you cards, which read:
"Darkness reigns. Hope gurgles out its dying breath. Thank you for the beautiful crockpot."
If that's not a metaphor for my Illini world right now, I don't what is. Or is it a simile? I should know these things.
At any rate, things are a little bleak in my Illini world. Basketball chokes away last gasps of a potential NCAA bid today against a Michigan team literally 24 hours from a plane crash (THE WOLVERINES WERE WEARING THEIR PRACTICE GEAR FOR PETE'S SAKE) and my beloved baseball program has managed to win just one game each of the first three weekends out.
Last weekend at Florida Atlantic, the Illini pitching staff surrendered a combined 31 runs. They dropped the opener 11-10, 10-run ruled the Owls in Game 2 with a 14-4 victory and then got run-ruled 16-2 in the series finale. To once again quote Happy Endings, "Roof stoof."
Pitching continues to be problematic for Dan Hartleb's squad. All 31 runs the Illini surrendered last weekend were earned and they posted a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 1:1.4. The lone bright spot on the pitching staff was Fr. RHP Ty Weber, who made the Illini's first quality start of the season by going six innings and giving up just one run on four hits with 4 strikeouts and 2 walks. For his efforts, Weber has been bumped up to No. 2 in the rotation for this weekend, behind Soph. RHP Cole Bellair, who returns from a brief trip to the bullpen to resume his (hopefully) all-B1G 10 role. His classmate, Luke Shilling, will start Game 3 now.
Weber's classmates, freshman middle infielders Ben Troike and Mike Massey, have lead a stellar Illinois defense. Heading into the weekend, the Illini lead the nation in double-plays per game at 1.8. Perhaps even more impressively, Troike and Massey have started every game up the middle and have just 1 error between them in 93 chances. That's a .999 fielding percentage - and that is outstanding.
The Illini's biggest question mark coming into the season - the offensive lineup -- has been decent. Jack Yalowitz continues to enjoy one of the best starts in recent memory. The Soph. OF is hitting .425 with 2 doubles, a triple, 2 home runs and 10 RBIs out of the lead-off spot. Sr. 1B Pat McInerney is also coming around as he's enjoying a six-game hitting streak during which he's homered twice and is hitting .444.
Both the pitching staff and the hitters figure to be challenged this weekend as the Illini visit defending national champion Coastal Carolina.
Coastal Carolina made headlines last year by riding an impressive offense and an opportunistic pitching staff to the College World Series title.
The Coastal offense made headlines last year by finishing tops in all of D1 baseball with 96 home runs. But they also put pressure on opposing defenses by laying down 78 sacrifice bunts (4th in all of Division I) and swiping 112 bases (good for 7th overall).
The result was an offense that finished No. 1 overall in Division 1 with 516 runs in 73 games - or an average of 7.04 runs per game. That hasn't dropped off much this year. Despite some heavy graduation/draft losses, the Chanticleers (greatest nickname ever) still average 6.8 runs per game.
The Chants leading hitter is an Illinois native - Galesburg's Peyton Isaccson. He comes in hitting .359.
How did Isaacson end up at Coastal? Chants pitching coach Drew Thomas is a native of Lincoln and recruits his home state HARD.
Thomas, in concert with head coach Gary Gilmore, has made some hard decisions about his pitching staff to open the year. You can see the story here
Those changes have taken some time to take effect as the Chanticleers team ERA is nearly 3 points higher than it was last year. But still, there's a lot of pitchers on staff with meaningful experience from a year ago.
Now, there is some X-factor here. Illinois coach Dan Hartleb has never shied away from facing some of the nation's best teams. And the first two weekends in March always seems to be where the Illini make a little noise.
For example, back on March 6-8 2009, the Illini traveled to top-ranked LSU and took 2-of-3 from the Tigers. I still remember former assistant Eric Snider (now at Louisville) telling me how angry all the Cajuns were about an unranked Northern team coming into Alex Box Stadium and taking a series. My favorite story of that whole trip though comes from the series clincher, where Illinois starter Ben Reeser worked 8.2 innings, struck out 9 and walked 4 and did while throwing 75% of his pitches as changeups. The Illinois players on that team still laugh about how the LSU players were walking back to the dugout complaining that Reeser wouldn't show them a fastball.
On the second weekend of March in 2010, the Illini started their regular trips to South Caroline to face the Chanticleers (they've squared off five out of the last seven years). In 2010, split a two-game weather shortened series with the Chants.
In March 2013, the Illini swept Baylor, back then a traditional power in the Big 12. A year later on the second weekend in March, the Illini traveled to Florida and sandwiched a sweep of No. 23-ranked Florida around a sweep of Florida Gulf Coast.
Finally, on March 6-8, 2015, the Illini took 2-out-of-3 from #10-ranked Oklahoma State.
What will this year hold? Hopefully more of the same.