CHAMPAIGN, IL – On Selection Monday this past May, Illinois found themselves among the last four teams left out of the field of 64. That means that they came painfully close to playing postseason baseball, perhaps just a handful of wins from it, before being turned away.
On paper, it looks like the 2019 team, one featuring a heavy dose of returning contributors complemented by some new faces that look ready to compete for jobs right away, could be one that leaves no doubt about their postseason prospects.
“We have a lot of guys back that gave us a lot of production last year,” Hartleb says. “I expect all those guys to get better. I do think we have a lot of young players and new players that can really help us win, and I think it’s going to create great competition and push some guys. I’m hopeful some of the young guys outperform the older guys. That continues to make you better.”
On Saturday against Indiana State, in the Illini’s second of two fall scrimmages, pitching played a starring role. Although the scheduled 14-inning game ended in a 5-5 tie, through nine innings, Illinois led 5-0 and held ISU hitters to just three hits. And there’s little reason to think that pitching won’t continue to be a strength for this team as next season gets underway.
That’s actually a stark contrast to the way things stood at this time last year, when they were coming off of a 2017 season that featured a 5.83 team ERA and had a whole host of question marks on the mound.
Then 2018 happened, they shaved more than a run and a half off of that team ERA, and now they enter this fall with just about everybody, with the exception of closer Joey Gerber, who is now pitching in the Seattle Mariners organization, and Ryan Kutt, who will miss the season due to Tommy John surgery, back in the fold.
That includes all three members of the starting rotation in Quinn Snarskis, Andy Fisher, and Ty Weber.
Snarskis had to have been the unlikeliest Friday night starter in the Big Ten in 2018. He only ended up at Illinois after his school, Division II St. Joseph’s, closed its doors, but he took to his role with the Illini like a fish to water, going 6-1 with a 2.84 ERA and a .236 opponent batting average in 73 innings across 13 appearances, 12 of which were starts. He won’t blow you away with his stuff and he won’t pile up strikeouts, but he pounds the strike zone relentlessly and he was consistent as consistent could be throughout the 2018 season.
Fisher was another pleasant addition to the rotation via transfer. After two up-and-down seasons at Eastern Illinois, the lefty burst onto the scene with the Illini and led the team in innings in 2018 with 84, all while going 6-3 with a 3.96 ERA. On Saturday, he threw a scoreless second inning against the Sycamores with his usual repertoire of fastballs in the high-80s and darting sliders, all from a funky delivery.
Weber, meanwhile, would be in his third season as a member of the weekend rotation. After enjoying some of the highs and lows that often come with a freshman campaign, he took a big step forward in 2018, going 4-3 with a 3.84 ERA and a .245 opponent batting average in 82 innings of work. He, too, tossed a clean inning during the Illini’s run of nine shutout innings on Saturday.
In the bullpen, there aren’t many question marks about who the key pieces will be, but there are some questions about how those pieces will fit into the overall puzzle.
Take Ryan Thompson, for example. The righty from Minnesota was a huge part of the equation in 2018, serving as the team’s stopper out of the bullpen on the way to sporting a 2.72 ERA and a .206 opponent batting average in 46.1 innings. He’ll also presumably hold down a vital role on the 2019 staff, but Hartleb and pitching coach Drew Dickinson will have a decision to make about just what that role is.
Certainly, he would be a candidate to take over as the team’s closer, but he also would provide a great deal of value staying in the role he held last season. He’s comfortable coming into sticky situations, and given that he averaged nearly two innings per appearance (46.1 innings over 24 appearances), he’s someone you can trust to get more than three outs at a time.
Another pitcher who provides some versatility is junior Cyrillo Watson. With 27 career appearances and 17 career starts, he’s done a little bit of everything for the Illini. He’s started games on the weekends in league play, started midweek games, and provided some relief work.
If he slots back into a role as a starter, whether that’s in the midweek or if he bumps one of the established pitchers on the weekend, the proof of concept is out there. Against Purdue in the Big Ten Tournament, he tossed six solid innings, giving up just two earned runs, and after that start, Hartleb expressed confidence in Watson’s ability to get the job done, should they have needed him again in a spot start in a regional.
He would also be an intriguing option in relief, at least given what he showed in his inning on Saturday, when he froze veteran ISU shortstop Clay Dungan on a 93 MPH fastball and then struck out the Sycamores’ leading returning home run hitter Jake Means, who had doubled earlier in the scrimmage, on a breaking ball in the dirt. It’s hard to glean too much from such small sample sizes, but Watson’s clean, dominant inning was as impressive as any by an Illinois pitcher on Saturday.
He’s far from the only wild card on the staff, though.
Fifth-year senior Sean Leland is one as well. Just as he did last year in the Illini’s scrimmage against Illinois-Springfield, Leland got the start against Indiana State and looked good, throwing a 1-2-3 frame. The Louisville transfer never quite settled into a role in his first season in Champaign and struggled to a 10.22 ERA in 12.1 innings, but he’s got the pedigree and the track record of success in the past to suggest that he could find his way into a role in 2019.
Another is freshman Aidan Maldonado, who has made quite the impression in his appearances in these scrimmages. He pitched in the scrimmage against Eastern Illinois and immediately came out firing fastballs that reached the mid-90s, and he backed that up with another such performance on Saturday. How he’ll deal with the challenges that come with a player’s first season in Division I baseball remains to be seen, but his is the type of arm that you feel compelled to find innings for.
Among other new faces who could find some innings along the way, keep an eye on JUCO transfer Garrett Acton. A draft pick of the Chicago White Sox out of high school, he began his career at Saint Louis before transferring to Parkland College, where he had a 2.25 ERA and struck out 44 in 32 innings of work in 2018. A big righty with some funk in his delivery and a fastball that touched 93 on the house gun on Saturday, he looks the part of a real weapon for the Illini out of the bullpen.
Other established options include lefty Zack Jones (3.86 ERA, 25.2 IP), who held opponents to a .186 batting average in 2018, fifth-year senior Quinten Sefcik (4.32 ERA, 25 IP), who has thrown 84 career innings, mostly in relief, and Ryan Schmitt (6.27 ERA, 33 IP), whose peripheral numbers suggest that he’s a much more effective pitcher than his ERA in 2018 would lead you to believe.
“We have a lot of really good pieces,” Hartleb says. “There’s a couple guys that just from their history and watching them, are probably more one inning-type guys and I think we’re in a situation where we may have three or four guys that could be on the back end on a regular basis. I think we can do matchup stuff. I’m really pleased with the ability that we have on the mound and I’m just looking for guys to get better and then we’re going to be able to put together a really, really good pitching staff.”
From a position player standpoint, seven of the team’s nine starters from a year ago are back in the fold.
That includes the junior middle infield duo of shortstop Ben Troike and second baseman Michael Massey, which gives Illinois one of the best such pairs in the country. Each more than holds their own offensively, as Troike hit .299 with a .402 on-base percentage and Massey hit .326 with 17 doubles, which tied him for the team lead last season. They probably provide even more value defensively, however, where they’re excellent individually but even better as a double play unit.
Speaking of defense, Grant Van Scoy is back to man third base. He pushed his way on to the field last season and then stuck there largely on the strength of his outstanding play at the hot corner. He flashed the leather again on Saturday by taking a hit away from ISU’s C.J. Huntley on a slow roller that hugged the foul line, and then later, by starting a double play by diving to his left and snagging a scorched short hopper off the bat of Dane Tofteland. For good measure, he also had a couple of well-struck base hits in the scrimmage.
The outfield returns redshirt senior center fielder Zac Taylor and senior right fielder Jack Yalowitz. The former had an up-and-down first season at Illinois after transferring from Houston. He played his typical solid brand of defense in center field and he flashed enough power to collect ten homers, good for second on the team, but he hit just .226, the lowest average he’s had in his three seasons at the Division I level. He was a 36th-round draft pick of the Twins after the season, but elected to return to Champaign. On Saturday, he collected a sac fly and later lined a double into the left-field corner.
Yalowitz just never quite got things going in 2018 after his stellar 2017 season and his numbers (.216 BA, .304 OBP, 4 HR) were down across the board, but if his performance in the scrimmages this past week are any indication, perhaps he’s on the way to putting together a season more like the one he enjoyed in 2017. He had two home runs and a triple in the scrimmage against Eastern Illinois, and on Saturday, he collected a couple more hits, including a scalded double to the opposite field.
The third outfield spot, manned last season by Doran Turchin, who is now in the Baltimore Orioles system, is one of the few question marks in the field heading into 2019. On Saturday, it was patrolled by senior Michael Michalak. Whether or not Michalak ends up being the guy in left field, his is probably a bat that Hartleb will want to get in the lineup. A season ago, he hit .282 with a .370 on-base percentage, and he’s coming off of a big summer with the Rochester Honkers of the Northwoods League, where he hit .275 with 14 doubles and seven home runs.
He could also factor into the equation at the other position where Illinois has an opening, first base, the position vacated by Bren Spillane, who was a third-round pick of the Reds in June. Also in the mix there is Ryan Haff. The redshirt senior has played a bit role in his first few seasons on campus, but he’ll have a chance for a bigger role this time around. Certainly the staff would like to see more production like the hard-hit double he collected in the seventh inning of the scrimmage Saturday. Redshirt freshman Kellen Sarver and freshman Cam McDonald, who both saw some time in the Indiana State scrimmage, are also under consideration there.
“I think, as you look at first base, there’s four guys that I want to evaluate there,” Hartleb says. “You’ve got Haff, you’ve got Michalak, Sarver, and McDonald. Some of what will happen will depend on what we feel like, number one, gets our best nine on the field, and also, left field. I think left field and first base have some interchangeable pieces and parts. Defense is going to be really important, but it’s got to be an offensive position. That’s very much an open competition.”
There’s also some competition to be had behind the plate. Jeff Korte returns after doing much of the catching a year ago, but so does senior David Craan, who has appeared in 81 games in three seasons, and added to the mix is freshman Jacob Campbell, another highly-touted newcomer with the ability to fight his way into playing time right away.
“I think there’s going to be great competition back there,” Hartleb says. “If you look at what’s happened this fall, I think they’ve all received and caught well. Just from experience, Korte and Craan probably have a little bit better feel for calling a game, but some of that is that they have familiarity with the pitching staff and Campbell doesn’t. Campbell, in two scrimmages against other teams, I think he’s swung the bat very well. He’s got some power and I think he can control the running game from a throwing standpoint. There is going to be some things that we have to sort out from an offensive and a defensive standpoint, but if you told me that I had to start any of those three guys today and it’s the first game of the season, I’d be comfortable with any one of them.”
One other newcomer to watch out for is Branden Comia. In the long term, he might be the next man up at shortstop once Troike’s career is over, but for now, he’s got the talent to find his way to the field early on, even in a smaller role. He showed some power on Saturday by giving a ball a ride to the warning track in left-center field.
The final piece of the puzzle for a team looking to break through into postseason play is often the team chemistry aspect, but the Illini are already ahead of the game in that regard because so many of these guys played together on the 2018 team, and they’re undoubtedly motivated to get over the hump next season.
But if that’s not enough, they’ll also get some help from their upcoming foreign trip to Aruba and Curacao, where they will play games against assembled teams on the islands.
“It’s two-fold,” Hartleb says of what he hopes he and his team get out of the trip. “There’s some more things that I want to see against outside competition. I may flip some guys around to different positions and just see where we are. Pitchers, hopefully we can get them on the mound twice down there. There won’t be extended inning-type things. So just learn a little bit more. Need to see who performs well and with composure as we face a different color uniform. That’s always very, very important. The young guys, this past Wednesday and Saturday, we got to see how they would react and hopefully when we get down on that trip they’re a little bit calmer and approach things with a little bit of a feeling of experience.
“The other part, and this is really, really important, I think we have good team chemistry. I think we have a bunch of guys that get along, but down there, I’ve been very, very honest and upfront and clear with our guys. They’re not spending any time with family or anything else. Their family that week is going to be 36 guys spending every minute that they are there together. And the other portion of it is they’re going to get their cell phones for one hour a day. So it’s all about those guys being together, spending time together, learning about each other, communicating, and when we come back, I want us to be so close that they always have each other’s backs, regardless of what’s going on.”
Iowa head coach Rick Heller spoke of how important his team’s 2016 trip to the Dominican Republic was as a jumping off point for their successful 2017 season, and Illinois’ own trip to the Dominican in 2014 came just before their record-setting 2015 campaign that had them hosting both a regional and a super regional at Illinois Field.
Perhaps it’s a coincidence that these types of trips preceded successful seasons, or perhaps it speaks to how much benefit a program can see from them. Certainly, the Illini hope it’s the latter, but even if it’s the former, the pieces are in place for the 2019 season to be a successful one in Champaign.