Illinois baseball 'on a heater' (2024)

CHAMPAIGN — Rock bottom.

That’s how Illinois baseball coach Dan Hartleb described the state of his team in mid-March. The first month of the season was brutal for the Illini. The best win — and there were only five of them — was a nonconference victory against Big Ten rival Michigan State in a trip to Greenville, S.C.

Twice as many losses compared to wins ensued in that span.

Illinois went 0-fer at the Coastal Carolina Tournament in late February, getting outscored 34-13, with a 17-9 loss to the then No. 25-ranked hosts. A three-game series at then-No. 8 Tennessee in early March was worse. The Vols sweep included a 24-1 thrashing.

Rock bottom. But with an incredible bounce back that has its roots in a series win against Southern Indiana at Illinois Field — even if all was not well just yet at that point — and has included 15 wins in the last 18 games after wrapping up a series sweep Sunday against Northern Illinois.

“We didn’t handle the early season very well mentally,” Hartleb said. “We played tough teams, which I like to play, and we didn’t handle it very well. We lost some games. Guys were frustrated. What I told them was when you feel sorry for yourself you can’t compete, and everybody was feeling sorry for themselves. We were losing games, and everybody was putting pressure on themselves. We were in a bad frame of mind.”

A frame of mind that didn’t automatically change taking two of three from Southern Indiana from March 15-17. A home win against Bradley on March 19 that followed helped, but it was winning two of three against Indiana in the first Big Ten series of the season from March 22-24 — on the Hoosiers’ home field, no less — that convinced Hartleb his team was starting to turn the corner.

The success of the last month has included a pitching staff finding a bit more consistency. A defense still making plays. And runs. Lots of them. At times, seemingly all of them.

Illinois’ sweep of Northern Illinois came with 52 runs scored on 50 hits in three games. A series that included 15 home runs for Illinois, with Drake Wescott and Jacob Schroeder homering three times apiece in Sunday’s 21-11 victory that was shortened to seven innings in front of 1,564 fans on a sun-splashed afternoon at Illinois Field.

“The ball definitely flies here a lot more than other places, but just passing the bat is the big thing,” Coltin Quagliano said. The Illinois third baseman homered in the series opener against NIU. “We know that one through nine are going to hit. We’ve got dudes in the dugout that can hit.”

So Illinois literally bashed its way out of rock bottom. Three wins with double-digit runs against the Huskies are more the rule than the exception. Illinois (20-13, 7-2 Big Ten) has hit that threshold in 11 of its last 15 wins, including all three games of a Big Ten sweep of Penn State to end March, and will try to continue the trend when the Illini host Southern Illinois Edwardsville (13-23) at 6 p.m. Tuesday.

“We’re just having a lot of fun,” Ryan Moerman said. The Illinois right fielder raised his batting average 43 points after going 7 of 12 with a double, three home runs, eight runs scored and eight RBI in the series against NIU. He is currently hitting .241 but has 11 home runs and 31 RBI to go with a .565 slugging percentage.

“There’s nothing special,” Moerman continued. “We’re not doing anything different than what we’ve known we could do all year. It’s just starting to come together as a team. We’re just having a ton of fun doing it. The atmosphere we create in the locker room and the dugout and off the field, it’s just been fun.”

The winning part has been fun, too. Illinois had the weekend off in the Big Ten — someone always is with just 13 conference teams — but still sits atop the league standings thanks to series wins against Indiana, Penn State and Minnesota. The Illini have a one-game lead on Nebraska (23-10, 6-3) going into this weekend’s series against last-place Northwestern (12-20, 2-7), which is part of a nine-game homestand.

Schroeder, who won his second Big Ten Player of the Week honors on Monday, is hitting a robust .372 with 10 home runs and 29 RBI, not to mention a .484 on-base percentage and .808 slugging percentage. Westcott has a team-high 12 home runs, a team-high 37 RBI and is hitting .305. The 61 home runs the Illini have are leading the Big Ten by a wide margin. Indiana and Penn State are both tied for second with 47.

A far cry from hitting rock bottom 10 days before Big Ten play started.

“There was a lot of searching going on,” Moerman said. “I think we did a really good job of staying together, and I think that’s allowed us to have the stretch we’re on now, but definitely at that point, we didn’t know what was going on. But we knew if we stuck together we’d figure it out.”

Quagliano credited the coaching staff for helping pull the team out of rock bottom. Baseball is full of highs and lows, and it’s easy to get too caught up in either. The coaches, the Kewanee native said, worked to keep the team on a more even keel.

“You can get caught up in it real quick,” Quagliano said. “That’s what happened to us early in the season. Just showing up to the ballpark is so fun. Once you get your head too wrapped around the baseball side you can really turn it sideways. Right now, we’re just having fun, doing what we do, and that’s just playing baseball. We’re on a heater, and we’re going to keep going.”

Scott Richey is a reporter covering college basketball at The News-Gazette. His email is, and you can follow him on Twitter (@srrichey).

Illinois baseball 'on a heater' (2024)
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