Illinois Baseball: Outlook in final two weeks of season

Back in early February, I predicted the Illinois baseball team would finish in 7th place in the Big Ten this year.

Right now, they’re sitting in 10th, with two series left to play (21-24/7-11).

So, where did things go wrong, and what do their chances look like with two weeks left in the season? Check out the updated conference standings and remaining team schedules here.

Let’s make one thing clear: The Illini still have a shot to climb into 8th and make the Big Ten Tournament. We’ll get to that later.

First of all, let’s take a peek at how my original predictions have stacked up. If you’d like to check my veracity, by all means, please do here.

Position Player to Watch: Pat McInerney, 1B, senior

Through 45 games, here are McInerney’s stats and team ranks in a handful of top hitting categories (among the 12 positional players with at least 45 AB):

  • BA: .306 (third)
  • OB: .405 (second)
  • H: 53 (third)
  • RBI: 36 (second)
  • HR: 13 (first)
  • R: 35 (second)
  • TB: 101 (second)

The star first baseman for the Illini has largely lived up to his billing as an offensive force and team leader.

The guy ahead of him in most of those categories, however? OF Jack Yalowitz, who’s having an incredible breakout year as a sophomore, which bodes very well for the future.

Pitcher to Watch: Cole Bellair, RHP, sophomore

Through 45 games, here are Bellair’s stats and team ranks in a handful of top pitching categories (among the seven pitchers who’ve started at least one game):

  • ERA: 6.70 (sixth)
  • GS: 9 (second)
  • IP: 49.2 (second)
  • K: 40 (second)
  • BB: 23 (fifth)
  • H: 70 (sixth)
  • BAA: .341 (seventh)

It hasn’t been a good year for Bellair, to say the least. He’s been counted on to pitch a lot of innings, and he has a decent K/IP ratio of .81, but otherwise he’s been pretty brutal.

When he’s hit, and it’s often, he’s really hit — nearly 1.5 hits allowed per inning pitched and nine HR against in nine games started.

The issue is there aren’t many other great options on this year’s squad. Tanner Roark, Tyler Jay and Cody Sedlock aren’t walking through that door. More on pitching in a moment.

Most Important Non-Conference Series: No. 11 Coastal Carolina Chanticleers, March 10-12

The Illini started off this series in strong fashion, pulling out a 7-6 win. However, after suffering a tough, 3-2 loss in game two, they were run off in the rubber match, 6-0.

I figured it would be a difficult early season test, and even taking one against the reigning NCAA champions on their home turf was impressive.

For full transparency, the Chanticleers are currently 30-16-1 and in 2nd place in the Sun Belt East, though they have fallen out of the Top 25 nationally.

Most Important Conference Series: No. 22 Maryland Terrapins, May 5-7

This one just finished last weekend, and Illinois baseball came away with two crucial victories. It began on a down note, with a 9-4 loss, but the Illini rebounded to claim the final two games, 6-2 and 8-6.

Maryland is also no longer in the Top 25, but they are in 2nd place in the Big Ten at 14-7 and have a 31-15 overall record.

To have given themselves a chance down the stretch, Illinois needed this series, and they got the job done.

So, What Went Wrong?

Here’s one paragraph from my preseason prediction post that I thought stood out while looking back on it three months later:

Illinois baseball lost a lot of pitching talent in the past two years, both to the MLB Draft and graduation, so the young arms are going to have to really develop for this team to remain competitive.

That hasn’t happened.

I don’t doubt that the experience for the young arms this season will benefit them in years to come, but the team has struggled for most of the year due to poor output from the mound — especially in games where they should have been competitive.

Consider the scores in these seven losses: 15-9, 11-5, 7-6, 11-10, 8-5, 17-6, 9-8.

The Illini were basically at or above their season average in runs per game (5.67) in one-third of losses this year. Three of those were one-run games.

While you expect this to happen on and off throughout the season, the above shows an unsustainable trend.

Here are some other team statistics that highlight general shortcomings:

  • Team ERA: 5.63
  • RA: 281 (6.25 per game)
  • BB: 226 (5.02 per game)

In particular, the sheer number of free passes given is a killer. It’s one area the pitchers can control that’s largely unaffected by defense, weather or any other number of factors. My hope there is that control can be improved through training and maturity, and the pitching staff is still very young. We knew that going in.

Moving on, though, I can’t completely let the bats off the hook.

In the two Big Ten series where Illinois baseball was swept (home against Michigan State and at Purdue, two middle-tier teams right ahead of Illinois in the standings), they scored a total of 15 runs. That equates to 2.5 runs per game over the course of six games.

If the Illini just win even two of those games, they’d be 9-9 and on the inside looking out.

Alas, here we are. My outlook for the next couple years hasn’t changed much, but this season there just hasn’t been much consistency. Different parts working at different times.

What’s Next in the Final Two Weeks

All that said, there’s still a chance that Illinois baseball squeaks into the Big Ten Tournament, but a few things need to roll their way. As I’ve previously mentioned, their hitting — and Coach Hartleb’s coaching — can keep them in most games.

First up is a series at Rutgers this weekend. The Scarlet Knights present a must-win scenario, as they’ve posted a sub-par 6-9 record at home.

The season finale is a home series next week against Iowa, currently 5th in the Big Ten. The Hawkeyes have an incredible record at home but, for a winning team, aren’t very good on the road (7-11).

If the Illini go 4-2 in their last six, they’ll finish the season 25-26/11-13. Not stellar by any means, but maybe just enough to slide into that 8th spot.

How? Well, the two teams ahead of them, Michigan State and Northwestern, are tied for 8th and only a game ahead of the Illini at 8-10 in conference — and they’ve got tough remaining slates.

Michigan State’s final two Big Ten series are at Nebraska (currently 1st in the Big Ten at 12-5-1) and vs. Michigan (currently ranked No. 16 in the country and 35-11 overall). Northwestern gets Rutgers at home but has to visit Maryland first.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Illinois baseball makes it to 8th and slides into the tournament — they’re 6-2 in their last eight, playing much better ball as of late. I also wouldn’t be surprised if they nearly miss out for the second year in a row.

It was never about this year, anyway.