MINNEAPOLIS, MN- The cliche that says that defense wins championships is typically used in sports like basketball and football, but this weekend in Minneapolis, it pushed the Illinois Fighting Illini to a (fictional) championship in the 2018 DQ Baseball Classic, where they were the only team to make it out of the weekend with a 3-0 record.
Sometimes it’s difficult to write about defense because it can be very abstract. We can’t always say for certain what would have happened in the ensuing at-bats if a play doesn’t get made, and a lot of the impact of poor defense is mental as much as it is physical. Few things are more crushing than an error on a routine play at a crucial moment in the game, for example.
But it’s a little bit easier to discuss with this Illinois team this weekend because you can point to specific situations where defense won them games.
On Friday against UCLA, with two men on in the first inning and two outs, third baseman Grant Van Scoy laid out to snag a hard grounder off the bat of Jake Pries and rifled a throw to first to end the inning. Had it gotten by him, it’s likely that two UCLA runs would have scored. Illinois, you may remember, won that game by two runs, 5-3. This is to say nothing of the two other times in that game Van Scoy came charging in to take away potential infield hits.
“I knew we would be good with our team defense just because we’re really strong up the middle, and that’s where it all starts,” said Illinois head coach Dan Hartleb. “The thing that has really come together is our third base defense with Grant Van Scoy. He’s really helped us there.”
Speaking of the middle of the field, in Saturday’s game against Arizona, the double play duo of second baseman Michael Massey and shortstop Ben Troike showed off not only their athleticism and quickness, which make them quality defenders individually, but also their middle infield chemistry, honed over many years playing together, going all the way back to youth baseball.
Their moments to save the day came in the fourth and sixth innings of that game against the Wildcats.
In the fourth, with Ryan Haug on at first, Cesar Salazar hit a hard grounder up the middle that looked like it might make it into center field, but instead, Massey sprinted over, got there in time to get in front of it, and tossed it seamlessly to Troike, who fired to first to end the inning. It was an incredibly slick double play that may not have looked like much in the moment because of how easy they made it look.
In the sixth, Arizona had plated two runs, turning a 2-1 Illinois lead into a 3-2 deficit. To end that frame, however, Massey and Troike linked up for another 4-6-3 double play, making sure the Wildcats’ lead never got beyond one run. The Illini, of course, ended up winning that game by one run, 4-3.
“We’ve played together since we were 13 years old, so we just know each other so well,” Massey said. “We really don’t even have to use words out there, we just kind of know by each other’s actions. I know what plays he can make, he knows what plays I can make, so we just kind of know each other’s limits.”
Zac Taylor has also stood out for his exploits. He had several diving catches over the course of the weekend, and his efforts are probably more notable for the tough plays that you don’t notice because he ends up making them look easy with the way he glides around center field.
Between he and Doran Turchin, who started in center field for the Illini over the previous two seasons, but has since moved to left field, and the duo of Troike and Van Scoy at short and third, the Illini are going to make it extremely difficult for opponents to find hits on that side of the field.
To be clear, the Illini’s defensive success started well before this weekend. For the season, with another clean game in their 7-1 win over Washington on Sunday, they’re fielding the ball at a .994 clip.
On opening day against South Dakota State, Bren Spillane, then playing third base before moving to first, where he has since played error-free baseball, made an error on a ground ball hit his way. Then, in the third game of the season, against Coastal Carolina, right fielder Jack Yalowitz, who Hartleb notes could handle center field if pressed into duty, collected an error on a dropped fly ball. Crucially, neither of those errors led to runs for the opponent, and since then, the Illini have played six consecutive error-free games.
“It’s (defense) something we work on everyday, especially in the offseason, we get after it,” Massey said. “It’s just a lot of hard work the guys put in, the coaches do a great job of letting us have time during practice to get after that. It’s just a confidence about this team. Nobody’s scared to fail. Guys go out there trying to make plays, and we’re making them right now.”
Certainly, the team’s defensive prowess has helped in other areas.
No one would accuse the Illinois pitching staff, particularly in the starting rotation, of being an overpowering bunch, so they rely on the defense to make plays, and this weekend that formula largely worked to perfection.
On Friday, Quinn Snarskis threw 5.2 scoreless innings. On Saturday, it was Andy Fisher finishing six innings, giving up three earned runs, and on Sunday, Ty Weber scattered eight hits over seven innings, but only gave up one run. Combined, those guys struck out nine hitters in 18.2 innings of work, and the one who got deepest into the game, Weber, only struck out one in his start. But you can pitch to contact when you know there’s minimal risk of being burned.
“It gives your pitchers great confidence that they can go out and attack the zone because they know they have guys behind them that are going to make plays. That’s the biggest factor,” Hartleb said of the benefits of his team’s level of defense. “You may hit a game where balls are flying all over the ballpark and the scoring gets up there, but I think we have the ability with our arms and with our defense to keep a lot of teams to really low scores.”
There are still questions about this Illinois team, despite the 3-0 weekend and five game winning streak.
Although Snarskis, Fisher, and Weber had success this weekend, that trio is still relatively short on proven success at this level, and there will almost certainly be bumps along the way. In the bullpen, they’re still looking for some arms to team with Ryan Thompson and Joey Gerber on the back end (although Ryan Schmitt took a big step forward in that regard on Sunday with two scoreless frames to close it out), and offensively, they still have a few guys who haven’t quite gotten going yet, most notably Jack Yalowitz, Doran Turchin, Zac Taylor, Jeff Korte, and Mark Skonieczny.
But what they can clearly count on, until they’re more settled in those other respects, is a defensive unit that has already proven its ability to win games for the team.