I feel like Cousin Eddie watching the tweet below as the 2019 NCAA tournament berth is added to the outfield wall at Illinois Field - "Ain't she a beaut Clark?" And unlike Cousin Eddie's mobile home, that addition won't be going with him at the end of the season. It's here to stay.
?? One goal down.
More to go. pic.twitter.com/nlAAqHSkP1
-- Illinois Baseball (@IlliniBaseball) May 29, 2019
Let's be honest - one of the biggest problems we have had recently at the University of Illinois is building on our successes (not you, Mike Small).
For every Sugar Bowl or Rose Bowl berth, there's more 2-10 football seasons. Basketball started downhill after the magical 2004-05 run before someone (probably Eric Gordon) cut the brakelines and we sped downhill like a luger (is that a word?) without a helmet, culminating in the head-injury seasons of 2014-present.
On the surface, it appears that Illinois baseball suffered a similar fate. After all, this is our first tournament berth since that incredible 2015 season. But a look at the make-up of this team shows that Dan Hartleb and Co. have been diligent in building upon that success as well as the successes of 2011 and 2013.
For example, this current group of seniors - Jack Yalowitz and David Craan, plus 2018 draftees Bren Spillane, Doran Turchin and Luke Shilling - all signed on the heels of the 2013 success.
But it's the current crop of juniors - Ben Troike, Michael Massey, Ty Weber, Ryan Schmitt, and Cyrillo Watson - that shows how Dan Hartleb was building upon that early success. Here are the Class of 2016 commit dates:
Watson - Oct. 2013
Massey - Dec. 2013
Weber -- March 2014
Troike - Oct. 2014
Schmitt - July 2015
Three of those five were committed before lead assistant/recruiting coordinator Eric Snider departed C-U to take the same job at Louisville. In fact, if there's a weak spot on this roster, it's the sophomore class. Spencer Allen only hanging around C-U for less than a year definitely put a crimp in the Illini recruiting as we currently only have Soph. Jimmy Burnette, R-Fr. Kellen Sarver and Soph. Ryan Kutt (redshirted this year due to Tommy John surgery) to show for Allen's efforts. But there's quality there - Sarver has become a legitimate Big 10 weapon and Kutt figures to be one of the players in line to challenge for Andy Fisher's rotation spot next year once healthy.
The coaching staff has been steady since Aug. 2015 with the addition of Adam Christ in the Recruiting Coordinator role. Under Hartleb's leadership, Christ and pitching coach Drew Dickinson have hauled in some of the best recruiting classes in the country, starting with this current crop of freshmen.
Of this current group - Jacob Campbell, Caleb Larson, Branden Comia, Nathan Lavender, Cam McDonald, Aidan Maldonado and Riley Gowens - five were committed within 18 months of the 2015 run. That's impressive considering those five only had two years of varsity baseball experience when they committed.
So the foundation of the 2019 success was laid long ago. (Am I the only one mind blown by the early start of the recruiting process? Michael Massey has been a member of the Illini family going on six years now. That's bonkers).
The fruits of the labor put forth by Hartleb, Christ and Dickinson will be on full display in Oxford, Miss. this weekend as the Illini enter the NCAA tournament as a No. 2 seed in the Oxford Regional. Host Ole Miss is No. 1, while Clemson is No. 3 and Jacksonville State is No. 4. You can watch the Illini open tournament play against Clemson on Friday at 3 p.m. on ESPNU.
Both Hartleb and Clemson coach Monte Lee both announced their starting pitchers on Wednesday morning. And curiously enough, both left their horses in the barn!
Hartleb will send Weber, a righty, to the mound instead of Andy Fisher, while Lee will counter with lefty Jacob Hennessy. According to The State out of Columbia, S.C., Hennessy was a rotation arm last year for the Tigers, but has been more of a swing option this season. He last made a start on May 17 in the last regular-season series and then made two appearances out of the bullpen in the ACC tournament. In fact, he's worked three or more innings just six times in his 19 appearances this season. And of his five starts, only three made it past the third inning.
I'm kind of wondering if Lee is following the MLB trend of using an opener? Might we see No. 2 starter Davis Sharpe (6-4, 3.48 ERA) at some point? Because outside of Hennessy and back-end options Sam Weatherly and Carson Spier, the Tiger bullpen is not great. I think the Illini have the advantage there.
Offensively, Clemson is a lot like us - they're streaky. Grayson Byrd, an LSU transfer and the son of former big-league pitcher Paul Byrd leads the Tigers with a .315 batting average and shares the team lead of 15 home runs with Logan Davidson. But after that, no Tiger hitter is hitting over .300 or has double-digit home runs. (Side note: I'm kind of impressed by the change in Byrd. I watched him STRUGGLE in the Northwoods League three years ago. It was rough.)
As for what lies ahead, you never know can happen in the postseason, but the law of probabilities (is that a law?) tells us it will most likely be Ole Miss if we win.
Offensively, the host Rebels do not struggle. Our beloved Orange and Blue haven't yet crossed the 300-runs scored barrier this season. Ole Miss, meanwhile, has scored 418 runs thanks to three players with double-digit home run totals - Cole Zabowski (10), Thomas Dillard (10) and Tyler Keenan (13). The Rebels' pitching staff, however, has been hit or miss.
Friday night starter Will Ethridge is 6-6 with a 2.94 ERA, but he also was 3-0 in the nonconference meaning he's beatable. The rest of the Ole Miss crew has ERAs in the 4.00-plus range.
I'm not going to waste much time on Jacksonville State. Bottom line, they come into the tournament having won 12 in a row and 16 of their last 17. But there's a big difference between being the best in the Ohio Valley Conference and the best in the SEC, Big 10 and ACC.
I said it Monday and I'll say it again - this is a winnable regional. That doesn't mean it will be easy, but it's doable. Anything after that is gravy.