Brent Yarina, BTN.com Senior Editor, May 14, 2015
Three more games. That's all that remains in Illinois' historic 2015 regular season.
Winners of a program-record 24 consecutive games, including six straight Big Ten series sweeps, the Illini (43-6-1, 19-1) host Nebraska on the season's final weekend.
Illinois' magic number is two, so it could clinch the Big Ten title as early as Thursday night, with a victory and an Iowa (37-12, 18-3) loss at Rutgers.
Before the Illini open up their final series, BTN.com caught up with Illinois beat writer Scott Richey, of The News-Gazette, to get his take on the special season.
BTN.com: When did you first realize the Illini might be something special?
Scott Richey: When they took two of three at then-No. 10 Oklahoma State the first week of March, and that was before I?d even had a chance to see them play in person - the curse of being a beat writer for a northern team.
BTN.com: It?s always more enjoyable to cover winning teams, so what?s the best part about following this team?
SR: Writing about 24 straight wins is certainly easier from my perspective than 24 losses, so there?s that, but this group is just fun to watch. They?re a good baseball team for one - just plain talented - but it?s also a good group of guys. I also think it would be fun to cover the College World Series, which would be a first for me, and Illinois appears to be on that path.
BTN.com: Twenty-four straight wins. What one game, one moment sticks out the most from the record run?
SR: Maybe because it?s so fresh and I couldn?t believe all that transpired while it was in progress, but I?d go with Sunday?s series finale against Rutgers. It hadn?t been a great day - or really, a great series - for the Illini. Their pitching, which has been a strength all season, took hit after hit (mostly home runs), but the offense kept coming through again and again. Then Reid Roper hit a grand slam to cap an 11-run eighth and get to 28 runs. Business as usual.
BTN.com: Were you keeping score for the 28-run affair? If so, what did your scorebook look like?
SR: I was. Even though there?s Gametracker and a full box available after the game, I always keep my own book. It?s just what I do at any baseball game I go to. I think everyone has their own system when they keep score, but mine from Sunday is full of more filled-in diamonds than I?ve ever had and an awful lot of dots to denote every run driven in.
BTN.com: The last loss was March 29, amazingly. Do you think the players fully understand what they are accomplishing?
SR: They do. I spoke with shortstop Adam Walton earlier this week about the streak and he said he?d mentioned to his dad recently that a winning streak of that length was something that really just doesn?t happen in baseball at any level. From my perspective, the Illini are just enjoying the ride and having a lot of fun while winning all the time.
BTN.com: What?s the craziest superstition you?ve seen from a player or coach during the streak?
SR: Most of the team has let their hair grow throughout the streak, although first base coach Kyle Hudson did cut his this past weekend and got the silent treatment from the team. Catcher Jason Goldstein, whose hair might be the most out of control at this point, calls it ?frojo? a combination of afro and mojo.
BTN.com: You get the sense that this team wishes second-place Iowa was on the schedule this season?
SR: I think the Illini would be just fine with Iowa on the schedule. They haven?t shied away from any challenge - I think the sweep at Ohio State proves that - and from talking with the players they truly believe they?ll win every time they step foot on the baseball field.
BTN.com: You know the personalities on this team well. What kind of dugout antics/videobombing should we expect during the postseason?
SR: Keep your cameras trained on Anthony Milazzo - No. 31. He?s the supreme videobomber on the team. What those guys think up next, though? No idea, but I?m sure it will be a viral hit.
Let?s do some rapid fire now ?
BTN.com: Best Illinois baseball name?
SR: It?s hard not to pick either of the Ropers (Reid and Ryne), but I?d have to go with Anthony Drago.
BTN.com: Favorite Illinois uniform?
SR: The new orange top. By far.
BTN.com: And, finally, most unhittable pitch on the Illini staff?
SR: Tyler Jay?s slider to left-handed batters. I?ve seen more unsuccessful flailing on that pitch than any other.