Illinois was inexperienced in a lot of places in 2017. After getting to the program’s first super regional (a super regional they hosted, to boot) in 2015 with a veteran bunch, they had a number of holdovers from that group on the 2016 team, giving them some veteran experience in that season as well. But in 2017, they didn’t have that luxury, and it showed, as the Illini went 23-28 overall with a 9-15 mark in Big Ten play.
But one bright spot that provides optimism heading into 2018 is outfielder Jack Yalowitz.
In a monster sophomore campaign, he hit .335/.409/.590 with 12 home runs, 44 RBI, and ten stolen bases, earning himself a spot on the All-Big Ten First Team. That was a big jump from his freshman season when he played in 43 games, hitting .227/.351/.291. With four doubles and one home run, he didn’t flash the power he would showcase as a sophomore, but with a solid penchant for getting on base (he was tied for second on the team in walks) and his 13 stolen bases, he showed potential to be the offensive catalyst that he has turned out to be.
With a similar jump as a junior, Yalowitz could be a contender for Big Ten Player of the Year, and that’s reason enough to believe that Illinois will enjoy a bounce back season in 2018. But it’s not the only reason.
Eight of the top nine Illini hitters from 2017 will be back in 2018, including Michael Massey (.330/.360/.483, 12 2B, 6 HR, 36 RBI), Bren Spillane (.295/.378/.500, 5 HR), and Doran Turchin (.275/.386/.485, 11 2B, 8 HR).
Just as importantly, they’ll have plenty of options on the mound, an area where they struggled last season. Louisville transfer Sean Leland will be eligible in 2018, giving the Illini a new option at the front of the rotation. Doug Hayes, who missed all of 2017 with injury after putting up a 3.58 ERA as a weekend starter in 2016, will be back as well. There’s also Ty Weber, who had a solid, if somewhat inconsistent, debut as a freshman last season. Andy Fisher, an Eastern Illinois transfer, is also an intriguing arm. He had a 5.83 ERA in 2016, but he showed an ability to dominate at times, as he struck out 53 in 46.1 innings.
That’s to say nothing of closer Joey Gerber, who was far and away Illinois’ most reliable reliever last season. In 33 innings, he had eight saves, a 43/20 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and a .205 opponent batting average. And, of course, there’s the tantalizing Luke Shilling, who could be as dominant as any pitcher on the roster if he could better command his arsenal.
Long story short, Illinois will have much more experience in 2018, most notably a returning Jack Yalowitz, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see more wins follow in short order.