Sitting around the pool and playing cards on sticky nights in the Dominican Republic wasn’t how the Illinois baseball team envisioned it would spend Thanksgiving break. The days of the week-long trip were filled with long hours of baseball.
With each day, though, the group began to digest how important the offseason road trip would be to their development into one of the best teams in college baseball this season and to the extended winning streak they’d ride into this week’s Big Ten tournament at Target Field.
“I bet about half those guys getting on the plane to go there were upset they were giving up their Thanksgiving break. But I think coming back from it, guys lives were changed,” Illinois coach Dan Hartleb said. “It was about going over there and seeing how fortunate we are. … From what they saw and how they feel about what we have as a program and what we have as individuals, it made us closer as a team.”
In between exhibition games against professional teams in the Dominican Instructional League (DIL) and pool time, the team gave back to the community, including a half-day visit to an orphanage.
“To watch our guys interact with those kids and all have fun together [was special],” Hartleb said.
The experience, the players and coaches are convinced, helped mold Illinois into a team that is ranked in the top five nationally, won the Big Ten regular-season title, and is the top seed this week. It’s likely an NCAA tournament team even if it does not win this tournament.
“You get to see what the talent is like in the DIL, and those guys are all pros,” Illinois No. 1 starter Kevin Duchene said. “So seeing it and being able to understand how to beat it was a big confidence boost coming into this season. … Already having some games under your belt as a full team and understanding that even though we’re not the most raw talent as a team we can be better than a good majority of those pro players, really helped.”
The Illini went 5-2-1 on the trip.
Once the regular season began in February, it didn’t take long to recognize the effects. They were 7-1-1 through the first month of the season and entered the Big Ten tournament with an impressive 45-6-1 record, including 21-1 in league play.
They won their 27th consecutive game — a Big Ten record — against Nebraska in the first round on Wednesday, but the streak ended late Thursday night in a 2-1 loss to Maryland.
On Friday, the Illini beat Michigan State 2-0 to stay alive.
“We’ve read some stuff that it’s almost better for [a team] to lose so they can kind of get the monkey off their back,” Illinois catcher Jason Goldstein said before the defeat.
“If it just so happens that the ball doesn’t bounce our way one day, it’s not the end of the world for us.”
The monkey is gone, and now Illinois hopes it can play deep into the postseason.