For much of the spring — the past two springs, really — rays of hope were difficult to find regarding Illinois State baseball.
The Redbirds set a school record for losses in 2016, finishing 17-37. By mid-May of this season, they had broken it.
When loss No. 38 came on May 18, an 8-5 defeat against Missouri Valley Conference-leading and nationally ranked Missouri State, it was reasonable to wonder, “How low can this go?”
If ever a team, a program, needed something positive to happen, this was it.
But how? When?
The next day, ISU handed No. 12 Missouri State its first Valley loss, winning 8-4 at Duffy Bass Field. A positive to be sure, but it was one game in the face of so many others. One in a row is a hard sell as momentum.
Little more than two weeks later, momentum is a good word to attach to Bo Durkac’s program, arguably the best word.
The past two weeks may have treated you well. They’ve treated Durkac and the Redbirds better.
First, Durkac’s painfully young team made major strides in the Missouri Valley Tournament. Seeded No. 8, the Redbirds surprised everyone with a run to the championship game at Springfield, Mo.
ISU was dead even with second-seeded Dallas Baptist after eight innings, pulling into a 6-6 tie on a Noah Sadler three-run homer in the eighth. Dallas Baptist regained the lead in the top of the ninth and won, 10-6.
Not quite the miracle finish ISU sought, but plenty to feel good about. A roster dominated by youth, particularly on the mound, showed much-needed signs of progress and maturation. Rarely can a 16-40 team finish on an “upswing.” This one did.
A second positive has come in the past week, also in Missouri. Former ISU star Paul DeJong’s promotion to the St. Louis Cardinals, and what he has done with the opportunity, can be a huge shot in the arm for his college program.
Recruits and their parents often say the right things in regard to educational opportunities and the “right fit” academically and athletically. Yet, they also want to know if coming to ISU can lead to a professional baseball career.
Durkac and his staff have tangible proof in DeJong, who homered in his first big-league at bat last Sunday and has started every game since at second base. Through Saturday’s game he was batting .304 and had looked very much like he belonged.
DeJong may be back at Triple-A Memphis when Kolten Wong returns from the disabled list. Or, he could be in the big leagues to stay.
Regardless, his story — on air or in print — includes the fact he played at Illinois State. It’s tough to put a price on that.
Much is made in and out the world of college athletics about branding. ISU’s baseball brand is enhanced significantly from a guy like DeJong, the first ex-Redbird position player to appear in the major leagues since Dave Bergman’s career ended in 1992.
DeJong’s ascension comes a year after former Normal West High School and ISU standout Brock Stewart pitched in seven games (five starts) for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Stewart is coming back from shoulder issues and has made rehab starts in Class A and more recently at Triple-A Oklahoma City. It is possible Stewart and DeJong could be in the big leagues at the same time later this season.
That would be a windfall for a program bankrupt for victories the past two seasons. Trumpeting two ex-Redbird big leaguers would not guarantee a recruiting win, but it just might put you over the top.
For now, there is hope in what the past two weeks have provided. Light has begun to peek through the darkness.
It’s a start.