MINNEAPOLIS, MN- On Friday morning, Quinn Snarskis took the mound as the starting pitcher for the Illinois Fighting Illini to begin the DQ Classic at US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis against the 11th-ranked UCLA Bruins.
Considering Snarskis is a kid from Fenwick High School in the Chicago area pitching for the major state university in his state, that might not seem like that big a deal. But that’s before you’ve heard the story of how he arrived in Champaign.
At this time last year, Snarskis was pitching for St. Joseph’s College, a Division II school with an enrollment of about 1,000 in Rensselaer, Indiana.
As a freshman, he had a 3.48 ERA and a 45/14 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 64.2 innings, and he was just about to begin a season that would end with him putting up a 4.38 ERA and a 57/19 strikeout-to-walk ratio as part of a team that ended the season in the NCAA tournament.
But it was also about this time last year that he, and the rest of the St. Joseph’s baseball team, and the entire campus community, for that matter, got life-altering news.
At the end of the 2016-2017 academic year, everyone would have to find somewhere else to continue their baseball and academic careers, as the school, founded in 1889, would be shutting its doors. This wasn’t just the school shuttering the baseball program, as we’ve become all too used to seeing happen. The entire school would be closed.
And with the help of relationships throughout college baseball, as is often the case in situations like these, Snarskis found a landing spot.
“I know Coach (Rick) O’Dette (at St. Joseph’s) knew (Illinois head coach) Dan Hartleb pretty well, and I knew a couple guys on the team who I talked to to see if I could get a spot here. It just worked out really well in the end.”
Still, finding a landing place at a Division I school like Illinois after moving up from Division II and finding a role on a team that returned a ton of players who already had established roles are two very different things.
And yet, there was Snarskis, heading to the mound Friday for what would be the Illini’s toughest test of the non-conference slate.
“The thing we saw in the fall was the fact that he was a strike thrower and really competed,” said Hartleb. “We thought he may end up being a bullpen guy for us, and then as he went through the weight program and continued to work hard and came back this winter, as we got started up in January, his velocity continued to climb, he continued to be a strike thrower, his breaking ball got a little bit better. He’s done a great job to get better and earn his role.”
Suffice it to say that Snarskis really took the opportunity and ran with it. He threw 5.2 shutout innings against the Bruins, giving up five hits and two walks with four strikeouts in his team’s 5-3 victory over UCLA.
More than anything else, his performance stands out for his ability to weather early storms and battle in every single at-bat rather than any show of dominance or flashy stuff.
UCLA had two runners in scoring position in the first, but came away with nothing. In the second, he worked around a one-out single from Ryan Kreidler. In the third, it was a one-out double from Jake Hirabayashi that provided the challenge. The fourth inning brought with it two UCLA runners, but a Snarskis strikeout of Daniel Rosica left them stranded.
In the fifth, he surrendered a two-out walk to Michael Toglia after a ten-pitch at-bat, with the final ball coming on a check swing that Snarskis and his battery mate Jeff Korte wanted badly, but rather than let that frustration snowball, he beared down and got out of it.
In the sixth, he had one last escape to pull off. He began the frame by hitting Jake Pries with a pitch. But then he got Kyle Cuellar to foul out deep down the left field line (which did move Pries to second on a tag up) and induced a groundout off the bat of Kreidler before giving way to reliever Zack Jones, who struck out Garrett Mitchell to end the inning.
Snarskis ended up with a tough-luck no decision, but it’s certainly the type of performance that will earn him, and the Illini, plenty of wins moving forward. For now, he’s happy to just soak up the moment, given that he didn’t know where he’d be playing college baseball for the 2018 season in February of last year.
“Absolutely no way,” Snarskis said when asked if he ever thought he’d be here at this moment. “I just love living in the moment and being here is just amazing. I love Illinois, I love this team. The program is awesome, so it’s just a really good spot.”
Another star for the Illini on this day was third baseman Grant Van Scoy. Coming into the season, with the graduation of Trent Hammond, there was some uncertainty at the position, but with what he did on Friday, Illinois might have found their guy for the foreseeable future.
In the first inning, he dove to his left, snared a hard grounder, and made the play at first on what would have otherwise been a two-run single for UCLA. He took away a swinging bunt single in the second with a charging play, quick transfer, and strong throw to first, and then he did the exact same thing later on a similar ball that took a nasty short hop on him.
With the bat, he had just one hit, but he made it count by lining a two-run single up the middle in the bottom of the eighth inning, turning a 3-3 tie into a 5-3 Illinois lead.
“He was incredible at third base,” said Hartleb. “A lot of really quality plays. Some of those balls get by him or we don’t get outs, they could be big innings for UCLA. The thing that’s got him in the lineup, for one, he’s making every play, but the other thing is he puts the ball in play every time he’s at the plate. He’s not striking out. He goes up there, has three quality at-bats, comes up in a situation with runners in scoring position, and absolutely smokes a ball up the middle. A great effort on his part.”
The cherry on top for the Illini has to be that the two stars of this game, Snarskis and Van Scoy, a JUCO transfer, are guys who were relative unknowns at this level coming into the season. The biggest reasons for optimism around the Illini were what we did know- that the offense returned a significant percentage of the best performers from a young 2017 team and that the pitching staff was going to have depth that simply wasn’t available to them last season.
Now, you have to figure Van Scoy will continue to be a big part of the program’s plans in the lineup, and Snarskis looks ready to provide some depth that wasn’t expected as recently as the start of fall practice. That’s all good news for an Illinois team motivated to make noise in the Big Ten after a couple of down years after the super regional run in 2015.
“I truly believe they’re (the team) getting to a point where they believe we should win,” Hartleb said. “We were one of the top teams in the country two-and-a-half years ago. We lose some guys to the draft, and then some things don’t go well for us. I told our guys that the guys that are standing here, none of you have won at the University of Illinois. The reason we’re respected is because of what past players have done. You need to earn the fact that we’re a team to beat as well. I think they take that to heart, I think it’s almost a slap in their face, and I wanted it to be a little bit of a slap in their face, as far as ‘hey, we really haven’t done anything and we need to earn our identity, and that’s a good step for us.'”