Smile Politely

We’re witnessing history at Illinois Field this year

If you’ve encountered me at a local drinking hole in Champaign and heard me talk about sports, you’ve probably noticed that I’m one of those people that’s from the Chicago area that’s been conditioned to expect to lose. Mind you, I’m not a Cubs fan so I’m not quite at that level. In fact, I’ve seen two Stanley Cups and a World Series won by my favorite teams. It’s wild that I still think this way. But at the start of a series, season, or game, I’m Woody Allen in Hannah and Her Sisters — “Do you know what a thread we’re hanging by?”

Naturally, I left the despair of of assuming the Blackhawks, Bears, and White Sox would be awful and lose every game and decided to come to the University of Illinois. It was 2005 when I made my college decision and the Illini were headed to the National Championship game in basketball. This was it, I remember thinking, this is the place I can go where my fandom will be rewarded. Bruce Weber will turn the Illini into a powerhouse and and I’ll be at the top of the Big Ten. Screw those nerds that went to Michigan and Ohio State that trash talk me. The Orange and Blue are going to crush them.

And then I watched underwhelming performance after underwhelming performance on the basketball court, on the football field, and in a handful of other teams I decided to follow. I was back to my natural state in no time. The world had balanced itself out.

I followed the Illini Hockey program as a beat reporter for the Daily Illini and missed out on covering their national championships by a year. During my time that program was as competitive as can be, but they just didn’t get over the hump. In the Spring, I floated between covering Illini Softball and Illini Baseball. Both programs were adequate and bordering on pretty decent.

But, as the NCAA tournaments would approach, heartbreak would settle in. In 2012, as a grad, I still followed the team. I liked Manager Dan Hartleb. I thought he did a good job and was always cordial to me when I needed to talk to him. But that 2012 Spring, the Illini were 11-13 in Big Ten play and finished 28-25.

This team needs a change, college baseball expert Tom Pauly thought.

The Illini were 35-20 in 2013 and made it to the NCAA Regional final. A glimmer of hope existed, but then in 2014 the team was 32-21 and needed some big wins at the end of the year to try and sneak in to the NCAA Tournament.

They fell flat, lost two of three to #28 Nebraska on the last weekend and got pummeled by Michigan State in the third game of the Big Ten Tourney.

This team might need to make a change, they’re never going to win with Hartleb, college baseball expert Tom Pauly thought.

Well, Coach Hartleb, feel free to call me a dumbass.

This Illini baseball team this year is a group of winners. They’re 40-6-1, 16-1 in the Big Ten and have won 21 straight games. Hartleb has put together a group of winners. Winners that this negative, world-is-ending fan thinks has a chance to win the NCAA title. This team had the swagger to go in to Stillwater, Oklahoma and sweep the #10 team in the country. They just completed a sweep of #23 Ohio State in Columbus. They’re playing fun baseball.

The pitching staff is fourth in the NCAA in ERA and their K/BB ratio is higher than UCSB who is leading the league in ERA. The Illini have two pitchers, Kevin Duchene and Tyler Jay, that have ERA’s under 1.00. They give up fewer than one earned run per nine innings. Duchene is a starter. That’s unreal. It’s unheard of. He’s given up six earned runs in 69 innings. He’s the definition of lights out.

Yes, I’m raving. I’m raving about this team because they should be at the forefront of your baseball viewing in Central Illinois right now. Forget the Cubs and the young kids they’ve brought up. Forget the Cardinals and their vanilla blandness that always seems to be in the hunt. Forget (well, you probably have already) the White Sox being awful and frustrating. The Illini Baseball team deserves your attention. They’re in the middle of a historic run and you can be a part of it.

They have six regular season games left and they’re all at home. The first one is Friday night at 6 p.m. Do yourself a favor and go watch the most fun baseball team in Illinois right now. Maybe you’ll be able to say that you saw the NCAA Champs play this year.

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