Odd-numbered years have been pretty good to the Illini 9 over the last decade and a half.
Back in 2005, the Illini sent Itchy Jones out a winner with a Big 10 regular-season title, but then flamed out in Big 10 tournament with an 0-2 barbecue showing.
In 2009, the Illini posted a 34-20 mark overall and a 16-8 record in Big 10 play, good for fourth place. But that was still the dark ages when the Big 10 was a one or two bid league to the big dance.
In 2011, the Illini secured the Big 10 title and then played host Stanford for an NCAA regional title.
In 2013, after the powers that be had finally turned the Big 10 into a multi-bid league, the Illini took advantage of a historic season by Sr. OF Justin Parr and a 35-20 record to make the postseason even though they finished tied for fifth in the Big 10 during the regular season.
2015. 50-10 overall, 21-1 in league play, Big 10 tourney champs, No. 6 national seed, champions of the NCAA Champaign Regional, No. 6 overall draft pick as part of a program-record nine overall players being drafted.
So here we are in 2019 and our Diamond Illini are 6-0 and ranked No. 25 by D1baseball.com. The comparisons to 2015 have started anew and, so far, skipper Dan Hartleb isn't shying away from them. Check out the tweet below:
How does this team remind you of 2015?
-- Illinois Baseball (@IlliniBaseball) February 27, 2019
The Illini swept the weekend at Florida Atlantic behind a persistent offense. Friday night, the host Owls built a 6-3 lead only to see Florida native Jeff Korte erase that cushion with a three-run mammo - his second of the night -- off of FAU All-American closer Zach Schneider in the top of the ninth. That put Schneider in the unenviable position of having to deal with the top of the Illini order. Following singles by Ben Troike and Cam McDonald, Schneider walked the ever-dangerous Michael Massey intentionally before issuing a bases-loaded walk to Zac Taylor. That gave the Illini a 7-6 lead that Garrett Acton would cement with one of two saves on the weekend.
Following a grindy 5-3 win on Saturday in which R-Sr. LHP Andy Fisher was outstanding - (6 IP, 2 hits, 1 ER, 9 Ks, 3 BB) - the Illini had to once again rely on their offense on Sunday to finish the sweep.
Hartleb could not have been pleased with his team on Sunday until the very end. The Illini squandered leads of five and four runs, respectively, before holding on for the sweep with an 11-10 victory in 10 innings. Jack Yalowitz, one of four Illini to hit better than .400 in the series, drove home the winning run.
There's good news and bad news here. The good news is that Illinois is hitting .314 as a team and averaging better than seven runs per game, which as Baseball America's Teddy Cahill pointed out this week, isn't too shabby for an offense that LOST the 2018 National Player of the Year in Bren Spillane.
And the pitching staff overall has been outstanding as it's pitched to a 3.27 ERA. In fact, Illini pitching coach Drew Dickinson thinks pretty highly of this staff too.
'Pen is mighty: No. 25 #illini baseball thinks talented, deep bullpen gives them an edge
"I really compare our staff to our 2015 staff that won a lot of games," pitching coach Drew Dickinson said. "I actually think this staff is better one through 17."https://t.co/9Zc1ECktRL
-- Jeremy Werner (@JWerner247) February 25, 2019
But there are some things to be concerned with. The most glaring need appears to be Friday night starter Quinn Snarskis. After bursting on the scene with an outstanding junior year, Snarskis has struggled to find a groove this year. He has yet to earn a decision while posting a 9.00 ERA with three strikeouts and five walks. Snarskis didn't make it out of the fourth inning in his first start against Georgetown and then didn't make it out of the third inning against FAU.
Frankly, it wouldn't surprise me to see the rotation shuffled at some point. Fisher has been next to impossible to hit in two starts and looks like a frontline guy by only allowing five hits with a 4-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 11.2 innings. Not far behind is Jr. RHP Cyrillo Watson, who was roughed up early against FAU, but has still pitched to a 2.45 ERA through two starts spanning 11 innings.
So does Hartleb bump Fisher and Watson up to Friday and Saturday night, respectively and go looking for a replacement? This would be the weekend to do it as the Illini will need four starters this weekend thanks to the four-game set and that would allow the new starter to get on the weekend recovery schedule.
Who might be a candidate? Jr. RHP Ty Weber has been a rotation guy since he set foot on campus and hasn't allowed an earned run in two appearances out of the bullpen. Fr. RHP Aidan Maldonado is a flamethrower, but has found barrels a bit so far as he's got a 6.23 ERA through 4.1 innings of work covering three appearances. It could be he's someone that just needs to start to find his groove. Or Snarskis could shuffle back to the Sunday spot and just regroup. The rotation for the weekend came out Wednesday night:
Four-game weekend coming up in South Carolina.
-- Illinois Baseball (@IlliniBaseball) February 28, 2019
And speaking of this weekend, this is the biggest test yet for Hartleb's squad. Wake Forest has struggled since its' loss to the Illini and that isn't much of a quality win right now. FAU was picked third in Conference USA, which is respectable, but not great.
This weekend, however, presents three teams that were all NCAA qualifiers a year ago. And as you may recall, the Illini were one of the first four left out of that field so they undoubtedly have some proving to do.
Let's start with host Coastal Carolina (Friday, 4:30 p.m.). The Chanticleers are three years removed from their 2016 national championship and are off to a 7-1 start this season, which has earned them a No. 19 national ranking. (Side note: this is actually the first of three games between the Illini and the Chants this year. CCU will travel to Champaign for a two-game set on April 2-3.)
This figures to be a stern test for the Illini pitching staff. CCU Coach Gary Gilmore is known as offensive-minded coach and so far this year looks no different. Gilmore's bunch currently ranks first in the Sun Belt in 12 different offensive categories and fifth nationally in runs scored (77), base hits (98) and doubles (21). Soph. OF Parker Chavers is coming off a weekend in which he earned National Player of the Week honors after hitting three home runs and driving in 11 runs in four games.
The Illini hitters are in for a treat too. CCU pitching coach Drew Thomas, a Lincoln native, leads a pitching staff that has a 3.35 team ERA. Five Chants relievers have yet to give up a run in a combined 14 innings and a sixth has allowed just one run in three appearances.
Saturday features the first of two games against Northeastern (4-2) of the Colonial Athletic Conference - the teams will also play again Monday. The Illini are playing Northeastern twice since the fifth team in the field is Big 10 rival Indiana. The Huskies have not faced a terribly strenuous schedule unless you count an exhibition game against the 2018 World Series Champion Boston Red Sox last Friday (The Red Sox won 6-0). The Huskies boast a bevy of offensive-minded returnees, including Sr. 1B Jake Farrell, who drove in 63 runs as a junior while posting 16 doubles, 8 triples and 11 home runs.
UConn made headlines opening week by taking a three-game series from No. 4-ranked Louisville, but the Huskies were brought back to earth by College of Charleston, which took 2-of-3 from the Huskies. The Huskies have an ace in Jr. LHP Mason Feole, who earned consensus pre-season All-American honors after going 9-2 with a 2.50 ERA for the Huskies, and a stopper in Cape Cod League All-Star Jake Wallace, who held opponents to a .226 batting average a year ago. The Huskie offensve, however, is struggling to score a little more than four runs per game.
No TV or streaming this weekend, so you'll have to make do with the audio at fightingillini.com!