Illini baseball ready to face Cal State Fullerton in NCAAs

John Supinie

CHAMPAIGN -- Illinois coach Dan Hartleb pulled aside his three sluggers after an eight-run loss in baseball to Eastern Illinois on April 20.

The Illini were 12-20 overall, so Hartleb tried to ease the stress among power hitters Willie Argo, Matt Dittman and Casey McMurray.

"I pulled them aside when we were terrible,” Hartleb said. "I said, 'Guys, you have to start producing for us. Don’t worry about anything that’s happened.'”

The Illini, Hartleb said, would be judged by the stretch run. After one more loss, the Illini turned it around.

Illinois posted a 16-4 record over the final 20 games to earn a share of the Big Ten Conference regular-season title and the league's automatic berth in the NCAA tournament by virtue of the championship in the conference tournament. Illinois (28-25) is seeded No. 4 in a four-team regional and meets host and top-seed Cal State Fullerton (40-15) on Friday.

Carrying an eight-game winning streak, Illinois makes its first NCAA appearance since 2000.

“We were so frustrated early,'' Hartleb said. "We played some terrible baseball. It wasn’t from a lack of effort or hustle. We were tight and couldn’t get things done.

"At the beginning of the year, I said this team could win the Big Ten championship. In the middle of the year, I said I hope we get into the (Big Ten) tournament. We’ve had other teams where we started out hot. At the end, we hadn’t played that well. We didn’t start out hot with this team.''

Over the last 20 games, the Illini are hitting .315. During the span, five Illini are hitting .324 or better, including Justin Parr (.341) and older brother Josh (.324), of Chillicothe IVC High School. Argo (.365) and Dittman (.347) trail only Pete Cappetta (.400) during the run.

Illinois pitching also surged. In last weekend's conference tournament, starters Kevin Johnson, John Anderson and Corey Kimes combined for a 2.25 earned-run average while chewing up 24 innings pitched. 

"There was a while there where we couldn't win the midweek games,'' Argo said. "It was definitely a struggle in the first half of the season. (The late run) is the type of team we thought we'd be all season.''

Fullerton is a four-time NCAA champ, the last one coming in 2004. The Titans make their 20th consecutive postseason appearance. The Illini haven't played this kind of college baseball powerhouse since March 2009, when the Illini took two of three from No. 1 LSU. But this is June, not an early-season series in March.

"We think we can come out here and win this regional,'' Argo said. "I wouldn't want to play us. We've won eight in a row. They're a national program. I've seen them on TV every year. We're just going to have to play our game.''

John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter @JohnSupinie.

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Fullerton Regional

Friday

Game 1 -- No. 2 Stanford (32-20) vs. No. 3 Kansas State (36-23), 6 p.m.

Game 2 -- No. 1 Cal State Fullerton (40-15) vs. No. 4 Illinois (28-25), 10 p.m.

Saturday

Game 3 -- Loser Game 1 vs. Loser Game 2, 6 p.m.

Game 4 -- Winner Game 1 vs. Winner Game 2, 10 p.m.

Sunday

Game 5 -- Winner Game 3 vs. Loser Game 4, 6 p.m.

Game 6 - Winner Game 5 vs. Winner Game 4, 10 p.m.

Monday

Game 7 - If necessary: Repeat of Game 6 teams, 10:00 p.m.

-- All games from Fullerton Regional broadcast on ESPNU