Illini Baseball Aims For Winning Season in Final Series vs Rutgers

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In hindsight, the decision to cancel the Big Ten baseball tournament was a very poor one. The call was made right before the 2021 season began, and that point we really had no idea where we would be, in regards to the coronavirus pandemic, come June.

While America had a disastrous response to the plague in 2020, it’s pretty astounding how well we’re doing, as a whole with it in 2021. More and more, we’re all enjoying moments that feel more like normalcy. Every week it feels like more and more of us are doing thing XYZ for the first time since March 2020. But the situation is what it is and now Illini baseball must find a different motivation in closing the season out this weekend at Rutgers.

“No big ten tournament, it sucks man, but it is what it is,” said Illini senior outfielder Taylor Jackson on a media call last week.

Said Illini baseball coach Dan Hartleb, last week ahead of senior day/the final home series: “competitors compete, you always go out to try and win if you’re competitive.”

“We’ve been in a situation, for the past two or three weeks, where we stood record wise it was going to be difficult to get into the postseason, so our guys have done an unbelievable job of coming to work to try and get better each day.”

“If you watch practice, see the intensity that’s in practice, it’s all dictated by the way the upper classmen go about their work, so I think they’ve done a great job with that and a great job in the way they’ve treated the younger guys, trying to help them in times when they’ve had struggles.”

Illinois (21-20) enters the weekend having won five of their last six games. Back above .500, they’ll need to win one in New Jersey to finish the season, one of all conference games, all square.

Taking two of three in Piscataway gives them a winning season, a consolation prize since a NCAA Tournament berth has long been out of the question.

The Big Ten Tournament would have been the perfect opportunity for the Illini to make their mark this season, as they could have played their way into the big dance from there.

Only the top 8 in the league go to the conference tournament, and Illinois was in position to be one of those teams.

The Illini haven’t had issues with offense this season, as they rank third in the Big Ten in runs, runs per game, hits and batting average. It’s their young, inexperienced pitching that has been the major problem. However, we have seen some growth and a little development along the way, in this area.

“(Pitching Coach/Assistant Coach) Mark Allen has really done a great of developing relationships with our guys, from a development standpoint in the bullpen,” said Hartleb, who last weekend became number two all-time in wins in Illini baseball history.

“You’re starting to see those things pay off, we’ve been much better, over the last ten days, out of the bullpen. we had some guys, who had terrible ERAs, who went down to Bloomington and pitched extremely well, and that doesn’t happen if you don’t have that development piece.”

One special thing to watch for in this series, Justin Janas could win the Big Ten batting title this weekend. He comes into the final weekend leading the conference in batting average (.372) and on-base percentage (.497).

Paul M. Banks runs The Sports Bank, partnered with News NowBanks, the author of “No, I Can’t Get You Free Tickets: Lessons Learned From a Life in the Sports Media Industry,” has regularly appeared in WGNSports IllustratedChicago Tribune and SB NationFollow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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