CHAMPAIGN, IL- When Division I teams schedule fall games against their brethren from lower divisions, like the one scheduled for Saturday between Illinois and Division II Illinois-Springfield, it’s often to give the players a chance to jell as a team, to face off against some competition wearing a different jersey, and to give some of the new faces their first taste of live action in the program.
For Illinois, the scrimmage against UIS checked all of those boxes, to be sure, but to use an NFL preseason analogy, this looked far more like the dress rehearsal that comes in the third preseason game than the first preseason game, where everyone gets some run and you’re just looking to shake some rust off.
In fact, you could easily foresee a scenario where the ten guys in the original lineup on Saturday (including the pitcher) are the ten guys that are on the lineup sheet come February 16 against Lamar in Beaumont, Texas.
Sean Leland, a Louisville transfer eligible this coming season after sitting out all of 2017, got the start. Zac Taylor, a Houston transfer also eligible this season, led off. Ben Troike, Jack Yalowitz, Bren Spillane, and Doran Turchin comprised the middle of the order, and familiar faces like Casey Dodge, David Craan, and Tyler Engel got the start as well.
The only new face in the initial order was third baseman Michael Michalak, but given that there are a couple of holes on the infield left by Pat McInerney and Trent Hammond and the fact that Michalak hit .366 and .359 with 18 combined homers in two seasons at Des Moines Area Community College, that’s not all that surprising either.
After outscoring UIS 23-6 in the scheduled 14-inning affair, the Illini will certainly hope that it also provided a blueprint for success in the spring.
Here are some notes and thoughts on the Illini from Saturday.
- It would have been hard for Sean Leland to look much better in his first inning of work. After striking out each of the first two hitters on sliders, he got UIS slugger Michael Rothmund (more on him in a minute) to weakly ground out to shortstop on another nasty breaking ball. His second inning wasn’t quite as sharp, as he had to work around a swinging bunt single and a walk, but he got out of there in a fairly efficient manner without allowing any runs to score. Leland will certainly be in the mix when Dan Hartleb and staff put together their weekend rotation for the first time in February.
- David Craan has a lot of the traditional tools you like to see in a catcher. For instance, he has a strong arm that he uses liberally when trying to nab sleeping runners on the bases. But it’s the non-traditional catching skills, such as his quickness behind the plate and his speed that make him a really intriguing player. What he hasn’t flashed to this point of his career is his bat. He hit .118 in little more than a cup of coffee as a freshman, and then hit .133/.241/.214 as a sophomore over 98 at-bats while splitting catching duties. Getting his bat going as a junior would be huge for Illinois, and on Saturday, he showed some flashes by legging out an RBI triple that he smacked into the RF corner. He hasn’t shown a ton of pop in his first two years, so it was a positive sign to see him drive the ball that way, and the speed he showed off in getting to third will certainly play.
- Speaking of the catching position, it appears there will be plenty of competition there as fall ball continues and then into spring practice if the time split in this scrimmage was any indication. Craan started, but JUCO transfer Jeff Korte came on in the middle innings and collected a couple of hits (including a three-run homer late), returning catcher Mark Skonieczny (who split time with Craan last season) got into the game, as did freshman Kellen Sarver. Sarver got a shot to hit late in the scrimmage in a situational spot with a runner on third and less than two outs and banged a double off of the right field wall. Some of the split in this scrimmage was because you don’t want the same guy to catch all 14 innings of a fall scrimmage, but head coach Dan Hartleb mentioned after the scrimmage that this remains a very open competition.
- In the third inning alone, Zac Taylor showed exactly what he brings to the table at the top of the lineup, as he generated a run largely on his own. He led off the frame with a single, stole second on the first pitch of the next at-bat, moved to third on a deep fly ball to right field, and then scored on an RBI groundout. During his two seasons at Houston, Taylor was nothing short of a pest on the bases for the opposition, and there’s no reason to believe that he won’t do the same for the Illini.
- It was a pretty successful day for a host of Illinois hitters who you have to figure will be expected to take steps forward in 2018. Beyond Craan’s day at the plate, Casey Dodge smacked a pair of doubles, Tyler Engel added three hits, including a double and a home run, Doran Turchin had an RBI double, and Ryan Haff and Bren Spillane joined the doubles parade for good measure. Some of those guys, like Dodge and Turchin, have already cemented their places as quality contributors with solid 2017 seasons, but this group of guys will be tasked with providing depth in the lineup around Jack Yalowitz, a potential Big Ten Player of the Year in 2018, and Michael Massey, who was an instant-impact player as a freshman in 2017.
- In his outing, Luke Shilling looked much like the Luke Shilling we saw last season. He started things off by struggling mightily with control, as he walked the first two batters he faced on eight pitches, including a couple of pitches that were nowhere near the target, and then he allowed a sharp RBI single to the next hitter when he did put it over the plate. From there, though, he showed why he continues to tantalize scouts and coaches alike. He flashed a firm fastball (albeit one several notches slower than the one he’ll likely feature in the spring), quality offspeed stuff that earned him a strikeout, and he was around the plate consistently. In the end, he left the bases loaded and allowed the one run, but held the damage to just that single run, which sounds about right for a pitcher whose had the specific mix of successes and struggles that Shilling has had to this point of his career.
- Jimmy Burnette is a freshman to keep an eye on. The lefty was the first pitcher out of the bullpen after Leland exited, and while it wasn’t a standout outing for him (he surrendered a three-run home run to UIS slugger Michael Rothmund), it’s hard to imagine that it’s a complete coincidence that he was the first arm out of the bullpen, when all of the original lineup was still out there. With a fastball clocked into the low-90s, a 6’2″ frame, and what appeared to be smooth, repeatable mechanics, he’s certainly got tools. Later, he got a shot at the plate and took advantage by smashing a two-run homer well over the right field wall.
- A quick note on Illinois-Springfield: keep an eye on Michael Rothmund once the spring season gets underway. Last season, he hit 24 homers, and if Saturday is any indication, he’ll hit a bunch more in 2018. The home run in the third inning off of Burnette was hit far enough that not a single Illinois defender felt the need to move. They all just turned and watched. Then, just as impressively, he followed that up in his next at-bat by flicking a ball to the opposite field for a homer. If you watched isolated video of just his swing on the second homer and never saw the flight of the ball, you might have assumed that it was little more than a bloop single to right, but he was able to muscle it out.
- Joey Gerber was the Illini’s most reliable reliever in 2017 in a season when they really struggled to get quality innings, as evidenced by their 5.83 team ERA, and he was dominant in his inning on Saturday. In long scrimmages like this one, you don’t always get pitching performances that make you stand up and take notice. Pitchers often don’t have peak stuff, sometimes they’re experimenting with their repertoires, and they’re usually just as interested in knocking rust off as they are in throwing zeroes. But Gerber was different. He came right in from the bullpen hitting 92 on the house gun, got hitters to chase for two strikeouts, tossed a clean inning in a game that didn’t feature a ton of them.
- To succeed in 2018, Illinois has to see improvement on the mound, and when it comes to the weekend rotation, they’ll have some options. Leland is in the mix, of course, as is returner Ty Weber, who threw two scoreless innings, giving up a hit and a walk with three strikeouts. Andy Fisher was the only other Illini pitcher to toss two full innings, hinting that he may find himself in the discussion as well. A lefty with a funky low-slot delivery, the Eastern Illinois transfer gave up two hits and a run in his outing. That’s to say nothing of Shilling, who started seven games a year ago, and Cyrillo Watson, who started ten games. Then, of course, there’s the return of Doug Hayes. Before missing all of 2017 due to injury, Hayes had a 3.58 ERA as a full-time member of the rotation in 2016, a season best remembered for a one-hitter he threw against Penn State. It will be interesting to see how all of this shakes out in the spring.
Post-Scrimmage Quotes from Illinois Head Coach Dan Hartleb
On how a scrimmage like this will help get the team ready for the spring:
“It helps the players because they understand what a game day is like, we’ve got a lot of new faces. We get to go through the day before, pre-game batting practice, all the things we’re going to have to do in the spring. And then it gives each of us a chance to not only see what guys can do in a position where I think they can play, but I can also move them around and see if we have some versatility with some people. It’s invaluable for us.”
On Zac Taylor’s potential impact:
“He’s a dynamic player. He can swing the bat, he’s got some power, but he’ll create havoc on the bases. We’ve got some team speed, but he’s got speed and instincts. He’s a guy that I think can be a key part to our lineup this year.”
On whether he plans on platooning at catcher in 2018 or would like to see one player earn the full-time role:
“Honestly, I don’t care. I just want consistency back there. We did not do a good job receiving last year. We didn’t do a good job calling games, and then offensively, it was sporadic. I want some consistency, I want somebody that will take over the pitching staff, control the pitching staff, lead those guys, and I think we’re very capable of doing that. That’s a very, very open competition.”
On how he and pitching coach Drew Dickinson will go about sorting out the weekend rotation:
“Consistency is going to be a major factor. We’ve got a couple of guys that threw last year that right now we need to get healthy. Once those guys get healthy, we see where we’re at in the winter, then we’ll look at the consistency. The thing I talked to the pitchers about as a whole today was that we threw strikes, but I want to see more quality strikes. I thought we threw a number of pitches up in the zone and they (UIS) got some decent swings off of them. You’re going to throw some bad pitches and they’re going to get some hits, that’s the way the game’s made, but I just thought there were too many elevated pitches that if they had caught up with them a little bit, they could have put a few more runs up on the board. I’m just looking for quality pitches and the guys that can do that, on a consistent basis, will be the guys that are out there. I’ve got great confidence that we’ve got good arms and good athletes and now we have some experience on the mound. It’s going to be a little bit of a process to see who comes to the top with things. I think we have enough depth that we’ll have solid starting pitching and enough matchup guys out of the bullpen and a good closer. I think we’ve really progressed since last year.