CHAMPAIGN, IL – On Saturday afternoon, the Illinois Fighting Illini wrapped up fall practice and their Orange and Blue World Series with the Orange team finishing off a 3-0 sweep of the series with a 9-2 victory.
Last season, one year after their breakout 2015 season, the Illini finished tied for eighth in the Big Ten, missing out not only on the NCAA postseason, but also the Big Ten Tournament thanks to a lost tiebreaker with the Iowa Hawkeyes.
With the end of the season came time to say goodbye to a number of guys who had helped lead the team to great heights, most notably catcher Jason Goldstein, shortstop Adam Walton, and relievers J.D. Nielsen and Nick Blackburn. That’s to say nothing of the departure of staff ace Cody Sedlock, who moved into the rotation last season and blossomed into a dominant force.
There are some names on the 2017 Illinois roster that Big Ten baseball fans will no doubt recognize, bopper Pat McInerney and breakout rotation stars Cole Bellair and Doug Hayes chief among them, but for the most part, this is a roster that will prominently feature loads of talented freshmen and sophomores angling to be a big part of the next deep postseason run for the club before their careers are over.
Here are my observations and thoughts from the finale of the Orange and Blue World Series on Saturday.
- It would be a huge shock to me if freshman Michael Massey didn’t have a big impact offensively from day one. He set the tone for his day by lining the first pitch he saw in the leadoff spot for Orange to deep center field. Only a great running catch from Zac Taylor (more on him in a minute) kept it from going for extra bases. From there, he doubled in back-to-back at-bats, driving in two runs each time. The first of the two doubles was to the left-center gap, while the second was a shot between the left fielder and the left field line. As an aside, it looks like the Illini just might end up with an all-freshman middle infield, what with fellow frosh Ben Troike collecting a hit as well in his start Saturday.
- Perhaps the biggest hole to fill on the field will be the one left by Goldstein at catcher. Not only was he a quality contributor at the plate, but he was a real leader behind it. On Saturday, the catching duties fell to junior Mark Skonieczny and sophomore David Craan. Neither catcher got a leg up on the other defensively, as each had errant throws that sailed into the outfield, but from an offensive standpoint, Skonieczny got the edge on this day, as he tallied three RBI on a double and single. No one will be expected to completely replace a veteran like Goldstein right off the bat, but finding someone who can fill in admirably will be key for the Illini.
- If the Orange and Blue World Series is any indication, Bren Spillane is a big breakout candidate for 2017. The 34th-round draft pick of the Pirates in 2015, after playing in just five games in 2016, hit three homers in the first game of the series, had the walk-off hit for Orange in game two, and then drove in two more runs in the finale. Offensive production was a struggle at times for Illinois last season, as evidenced by their .251 team average, so having Spillane take a big step forward would be huge.
- No one on this team passes the eyeball test better than sophomore Luke Shilling. The 20th-round pick of the Rangers in 2015 played a bit role at the plate and on the mound in 2016, with limited success in each facet, but it’s clear that there is potential for him to be something special. Certainly, over the course of the Orange and Blue World Series, he showed quite a bit of that potential on the hill. In the first game of the series, he tossed two hitless innings, and in the second game, he started and threw five innings, giving up two hits and two runs with five strikeouts. With Cole Bellair (who threw four innings, giving up three hits and no unearned runs in the second game for Blue) and Doug Hayes in place as two of the three starters for 2017, there’s an opportunity for Shilling to potentially slot in nicely as the third guy.
- Two players who shined on the field on Saturday won’t be able to officially take the field for the Illini until 2018. Louisville transfer Sean Leland started for Orange and threw four hitless innings. As a freshman All-American two seasons ago in a Louisville uniform, he’s a guy who has proven that he can succeed at a high level. He certainly seems ticketed to have a big role for Illinois come the 2018 season. The other guy was center fielder Zac Taylor, a transfer from Houston who started 84 games for the Cougars over two seasons before transferring up to his home state. During his time in Houston, he proved himself to be a quality base stealer and an outfielder who could run just about anything down, and he did both of those things on Saturday. On the first pitch of the game, he ran down Massey’s aforementioned liner to center field, and then late in the game, after reaching base on a fielder’s choice, he easily swiped second base. He’ll be a nice speed and defense addition, at the very least, in a couple of years.
- The only non-Midwesterner on the Illinois roster, Trent Hammond from Manhattan Beach, California, had a big day as well, going 3-3. After hitting .241 a season ago in 49 games, he could be yet another breakout candidate for the Illini.