In one of the most remarkable turnarounds in Illinois history, the Fighting Illini won the Big Ten regular-season and tournament championships, and reached the championship game of the NCAA Fullerton Regional after starting the season 12-21. After losing the first game of the Michigan State series, the Orange and Blue won 18 of its final 24 games, including an eight-game winning streak that clinched both Big Ten titles. The Illini also broke school records for most Big Ten series victories and most consecutive series victories by winning six conference series and the final five weekend series of the season. Illinois won its first Big Ten regular-season crown since 2005 and its first Big Ten Tournament title since 2000. The 2011 campaign stands as the only season in school history in which the Illini have won both the regular-season and tournament titles in the same year.
Following the season, four Illini were selected in the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft. Junior catcher Adam Davis was picked by the Baltimore Orioles in the 11th round, while junior shortstop Josh Parr was taken by the Arizona Diamondbacks in the 12th round. Junior pitcher Corey Kimes was a 19th-round selection of the Minnesota Twins and junior center fielder Willie Argo was a 43rd-round pick of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Davis, Parr and Kimes signed professional contracts, while Argo declined the Pirates' offer and returned to Illinois for his senior year.
The season began innocently enough, with the Illini losing two of three games at the Big Ten/Big East Challenge before winning a series at Florida Gulf Coast. Things began to slip when the squad went 0-3 at the Bright House Invitational hosted by Stetson and lost two of three at Western Kentucky. The Illini split their four-game Spring Trip to Carbondale, Ill., before beating Indiana State in the home-opener on March 25. The remainder of that series was canceled because of extremely cold weather and the Missouri game at Busch Stadium on March 29 was scrubbed because of rain in the St. Louis area.
The Illini extended their winning streak to five with a drubbing of Illinois State and a comeback win at Penn State to bring their season record to 9-10. But PSU recovered to win the series and back-to-back losses to Bradley and Benedictine University at Springfield sent Illinois reeling. The Orange and Blue won a home series against Iowa with a pair of comeback victories, but dropped six of their next seven games to reach 12-21 overall.
Amazingly, senior walk-on starting pitcher John Anderson put the Illini on his back in the second game of the Michigan State series and led the squad to a 5-2 victory. Illinois grabbed the series win with an 11-8 victory on April 24 and center fielder Willie Argo was named Big Ten Player of the Week after hitting .444 with two home runs and seven RBIs in the series victory.
The Orange and Blue beat Illinois-Springfield two days later and won two of three at Northwestern the following weekend behind a stellar weekend by senior second baseman Pete Cappetta. Cappetta hit .667 with a .714 on-base percentage at Northwestern to earn Co-Big Ten Player of the Week honors. After splitting a pair of mid-week games, the Illini won two of three from Ohio State, including a 13-9 victory in front of a season-best 2,019 fans at the third-annual Bleacher Bum Barbecue on May 6. In the series, Illinois scored 31 runs on 43 hits, a season-best over any three-game stretch.
The Illini then traveled to Purdue, a ballpark that has been a house of horrors for Illinois in the recent past, and lost the opener, 3-1. But the Orange and Blue rebounded for a 7-4 win on May 14 before taking advantage of a ninth-inning error on May 15 and walking away with a 7-5 victory and series win.
The Illini returned home and went down to the wire with Indiana in the final Big Ten series, winning 4-3 on May 19 thanks to a walk-off home run by senior left fielder Casey McMurray. Illinois scored a 13-12 win on May 20 with the game-winning hit coming in the eighth inning, and used a walk-off home run by senior first baseman Matt Dittman to notch a 7-5 win on May 21 to sweep the series and clinch a share of the regular-season Big Ten title. Dittman hit .600 with a 1.300 slugging percentage, thanks to two home runs, with five RBIs and six runs in the series.
The Illini kept up their reputation as comeback kids in the first game of the Big Ten Tournament at Huntington Park in Columbus, Ohio, when they overcame a 4-1 deficit in the bottom of the ninth against Big Ten Freshman of the Year Josh Dezse, OSU's closer. Argo tied the game with an RBI single and sophomore right fielder Davis Hendrickson drove in the winning run with a base hit up the middle to keep the Illini in the winner's bracket. The next day, Anderson once again stymied the Spartans and Dittman blasted a mammoth home run as Illinois advanced to the championship game with a 4-1 victory.
After MSU had eliminated a feisty Minnesota team that attempted to make its way through the loser's bracket earlier in the day on Saturday, the Illini needed to beat the Spartans only once to advance to the NCAA Tournament. Illinois scored a run in the top of the first and tacked on four more in the third, including Dittman's second homer of the tournament, to take a 5-0 lead. The Illini added two runs in the fourth and another in the fifth before MSU finally scratched across a run against UI starter Corey Kimes. But the junior left-hander remained in his groove and pitched the Illini to the Big Ten Tournament title with his first career complete game, allowing only one run on seven hits with a career-high seven strikeouts and no walks in Illinois' 9-1 win.
That victory propelled the Illini to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2000 and they were sent to Fullerton, Calif., where national power Cal State Fullerton played host to one of 16 four-team regionals. Illinois, the No. 4 seed in the regional bracket, had to face the host Titans in the teams' first game, and the Orange and Blue held their own early. The Illini struck first, scoring a pair of runs in the second inning, but Fullerton battled back with two runs each in the fourth, fifth and sixth, chasing UI starter Kevin Johnson in the sixth. Illinois had scored two in the top of the sixth, making the score 6-4, but the Titans added another run in the seventh and three in the eighth to pull away for a 10-4 win.
Facing elimination the next day against Kansas State didn't faze the Illini, though. Despite KSU scoring first with a run in the second inning, the Illini put five runs on the board in the third and fourth innings. The Wildcats got a pair back in the fifth to pull within 5-3, but Anderson won his eighth game of the year with eight-plus spectacular innings and Chris Pack earned his fourth save with a perfect ninth as Illinois took the 5-3 victory and stayed alive.
The Illini earned a rematch with Fullerton after No. 2 seed Stanford had taken an emotional 1-0 win on the evening of June 4, and Illinois once again had to rely on its comeback magic. The Titans scored first but the Illini responded with a run in the bottom of the first to tie the game, 1-1. Fullerton put up a three-spot in the third, but Kimes settled down and pitched efficiently through the seventh, allowing only three earned runs on 10 hits. The Illini scored a pair in the bottom of the seventh, tying the game 4-4, and scored three in the eighth on an RBI single by Dittman and a two-run double by Hendrickson, to take a 7-4 lead. That wasn't all of Hendrickson's heroics in the game, though, as he also ended the fifth with a diving catch into foul territory to keep at least two runs from scoring. Fullerton got a run back in the ninth but Pack finished it off to earn the 7-5 win, eliminating the host Titans and ending their streak of eight straight regional championships.
But the magical run came to an end later that night as the Illini went up against a powerful, athletic Stanford squad in the regional championship game and fell by a 14-2 score.
In the end, the 2011 Illinois squad will be remembered for its tenacity and balance, as the Illini compiled 21 comeback victories in its 30 total wins and no individual player earned first-team All-Big Ten honors. Sophomore designated hitter Justin Parr won the Big Ten batting title by hitting .411 in conference play, a figure that ranks ninth in Illinois records. The Illini also broke the school record for fielding percentage with a .973 mark and Argo moved within seven of the school record for stolen bases with 76. Cappetta compiled a 16-game hit streak in Big Ten play from April 10-May 15. Davis, Cappetta and Josh Parr earned second-team All-Big Ten honors, while Argo, McMurray and Wes Braun were named to the third team. Thomas Lindauer earned All-Freshman team honors. Anderson, Kimes, Davis, Dittman, Argo and Justin Parr were named to the All-Big Ten Tournament Team, and Davis was named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player. Josh Parr and Hendrickson were named to the All-NCAA Fullerton Regional Team.