BLOOMINGTON, IL- Fall scrimmages are a good chance for coaches to better familiarize themselves with the roster they have, to see how the pieces of the puzzle are starting to fit together in the early stages of the lead up to the coming season, and for players to see some live action against players wearing a different uniform.
When you have a new coaching staff in place, all of the above is still true, but on top of that, it’s an opportunity for the players to learn about how the staff will conduct a gameday routine and for the coaches to get their first glimpse of how their players handle game situations, even if the pressure isn’t on quite the same level as, say, a conference game in mid-April.
With Steve Holm and his staff preparing for their first season at Illinois State, that’s precisely what much of their fall has been about.
“That’s what we’re obviously trying to incorporate – our style and the way we want to play,” Holm said. “You can’t just do that in one sheet of paper. You can’t just hand it to them on the first day of school. So as we go, we’re critiquing stuff, we’re tweaking stuff. Some of the stuff they’re doing, we like it, and some of the stuff we’re doing, we’re switching it up a little bit. That’s why we chose to do what we did.”
At the same time, the staff is in a position where their team is one that returns most of its at-bats and innings from a year ago, and nowhere is that more the case than on the pitching staff, where the pitchers who started all but three of ISU’s games last season are back in the fold.
On Sunday, in the Redbirds’ scrimmage against Parkland College, two pitchers who figure to be in the mix for spots in the weekend rotation got extended looks.
One was Brent Headrick, who was a member of the rotation a season ago, struggling to a 4-7 record and a 6.40 ERA across 16 appearances, 15 of which were starts. In his three-inning outing against Parkland, he was lights out. Using a fastball that sat 91-92 MPH and mixing in a 77-79 MPH breaking ball with slurve movement, the lefty struck out five of the nine hitters he retired, and even considering the small sample size that three innings provides, looked the part of a pitcher ready to take a step forward. Holm confirmed as much after the scrimmage.
“He was probably the leader in making some adjustments early that we asked him to do on the mound,” Holm said of the junior lefty. “Obviously, he’s thrived so far. That was a pretty impressive outing he put together. He was a guy that was coming off of pretty rough year, numbers-wise, and he was very, very hungry to make a change. Some of the things that we threw at him, he’s obviously taken to a little bit. He’s definitely showing that he’s better than what he was last year.”
The other was Jeff Lindgren, a senior who has appeared in 64 games throughout his ISU career, all but three of them in relief. With bullpen depth having been an issue for the Redbirds in 2018, he was already likely going to be an important piece heading int0 2019, but he was stretched out for three innings of his own on Sunday and he was more than up to the task. Working with a high-80s fastball, his stuff isn’t going to blow anyone away, but he showed good command of that pitch and his breaking ball, he relentlessly pounded the strike zone, and he worked quickly. With a 5.94 ERA in his 25 relief outings, which tied for the team lead a season ago, he’s another pitcher who is undoubtedly looking forward to getting the chance to prove he’s better than the numbers would suggest.
“He’s (Lindgren) definitely shown the ability to do what he did, where he pounds the zone and he’s got tremendous tempo,” Holm said. “We’re learning their roles as we go. We’re switching them up and putting them in a little bit different roles here and there, but he’s done a great job, as well, of just buying in and being a good leader.”
From the way Holm and his staff set up the pitching in this scrimmage, it certainly sounds like Lindgren is in the mix to grab one of those rotation spots, even if that hasn’t been his role in the past. The idea coming into Sunday was to have three pitchers simulate starts by pitching three innings at a time. Brady Huffman would handle innings one through three, Headrick would get four through six, and Lindgren would get seven through nine.
The last six innings, with Headrick and Lindgren on the mound, went off without a hitch, with each pitcher looking impressive. But there was a snag with Huffman. After a clean first inning leaning heavily on his 89-92 MPH fastball, Huffman exited during the second inning with an injury. He left the mound holding his right elbow, and while it’s important to note that nothing is official at this time and he’ll be evaluated as the coming week goes on, it’s easy to fear the worst in a situation like that.
Before it’s all said and done, you can imagine at least a couple of other guys getting involved in the race to start games.
Also likely in the running is Matt Walker, who went 5-2 with a 5.49 ERA across 15 appearances, including 13 starts, a year ago. Another is Colton Johnson (5.01 ERA, 46.2 IP), who started three games in 2018, but settled into more of a relief role during the season.
In the bullpen, returning arms include Michael Sebby (4.57 ERA, 21.2 IP), the top returning pitcher in terms of ERA, and Jack Anderson, who had a 10.50 ERA in six innings of work last season. Holm went into the scrimmage on Sunday planning on using the latter as the first arm out of the bullpen should one of Huffman, Headrick, or Lindgren not be able to complete their three innings, so he was used to bridge the gap from when Huffman exited in the second to the fourth inning, when Headrick took over. Perhaps that situation provided a sneak peek at how the staff will aim to use the six-foot-six righty in the spring.
However it shakes out over the rest of the fall and leading into the 2019 season, ISU will look for this to be an area of improvement after putting up a 6.37 team ERA last season.
Offensively, the headliner in the Redbirds’ lineup is outfielder John Rave, and it’s easy to see why. The local Bloomington product hit .347/.402/.537 with 19 doubles and eight homers in 2018, all the while ably manning center field. His hit tool, combined with his athleticism, speed, and ability to handle a premium defensive position has him in line to potentially be a day two draft pick in the 2019 draft. On Sunday, he showed off some of that power and speed, as he launched a ball just shy of the wall in center field late in the scrimmage and legged it out for a two-RBI triple.
Rave should get support from a veteran cast, however. Also back in the fold for 2019 are a number of players who held roles last year in third baseman Joe Aeilts, second baseman Derek Parola, catchers Nick Zouras and Tyson Hays, infielder Jake McCaw, and outfielders Ryan Hutchinson, Jack Butler, Joe Butler, and Jordan Libman.
Libman had as good a day at the plate as anyone on Sunday, even though he entered the scrimmage late as a defensive replacement. In his first at-bat, he lined a two-RBI double into the right-center gap, and later he dropped another double into the Bermuda triangle created by the left field wall, the left field foul line, and the left fielder.
Hays is a wild card to watch offensively. He was limited to 24 games last season, but he was among ISU’s most effective offensive players during that time, what with a team-leading .468 on-base percentage and more walks (27) than strikeouts (22).
Illinois State’s lineup might be veteran-heavy in 2019 because of the return of the aforementioned players, but at least two newcomers look poised to break through immediately.
One is freshman Gunner Peterson, a highly-regarded outfielder from the state of Wisconsin. In his first game action at ISU, even if it was a fall scrimmage, he was the designated hitter in the starting lineup and hit leadoff. On a team with as many returning players as they have, it seems fair to assume that his prominent role on Sunday means something about how the staff views him and his ability to play a prominent role.
The other new face in the lineup was shortstop Aidan Huggins, a JUCO transfer originally from Edmonton, Alberta. A late recruiting pickup by Holm and his staff, Huggins looked smooth in making the routine plays asked of him on Sunday, flashed some range in moving into the hole and up the middle on a couple of occasions, and showed a quick release on his throws to first. Slotting in as the shortstop to follow Owen Miller, a 2018 third-round pick, is no easy task, and expectations certainly won’t be for him to be a ready replacement, but he’s already providing value at the position.
“Trying to replace Owen Miller is obviously going to be tough,” Holm said. “We signed Aidan maybe three weeks before school started. I got on a plane myself and went up to Canada and saw him play. It’s starting to show up a little bit. He’s made some plays like that in the fall and we’re curious to see if he continues to show up day by day by day because that’s what makes a good shortstop is the guy that can not just play today, but play again tomorrow, and again the next day and the next day. We’ve definitely seen some things from him that we like and it’s just going to be one of those deals that he’s got to learn to play at the Division I level as we go, and he’s done a good job so far.”
New head coaches don’t always have the benefit of working with a veteran team in their first season, but that’s the case with Holm at Illinois State. With some improvement in key areas and the emergence of new contributors to fill in around the established veterans, the Redbirds could be ready to compete at a higher level in the MVC than they have in some time.