1. Ryan Thompson Enjoys Homecoming
No matter how things went on the field this weekend, playing in the DQ Baseball Classic was going to be a pretty special experience for Illinois relief pitcher Ryan Thompson.
Thompson, a native of Byron, Minnesota, a town about 80 miles southeast of US Bank Stadium, is a massive Minnesota Vikings fan, and he hadn’t even been in the stadium until the Illini arrived for this weekend’s games.
“I love the Vikings. I’ve been a Vikings fan ever since I was a kid,” Thompson said. “I hadn’t been here (US Bank Stadium) except for now. I’m just trying my best to repeat what I’ve been doing in practice, and for the most part, it’s been working out. I’m happy I’m doing it here, too.”
Saying that things are working out for Thompson this weekend is a massive understatement, as he’s had as much to do with the Illini’s wins over UCLA and Arizona as anyone on the roster.
On Friday against UCLA, Thompson took the ball in a tight spot.
Illinois had come into the seventh inning leading UCLA 1-0, but by the time Thompson took the mound, the Illini were trailing 2-1, and UCLA had the bases loaded with nobody out. From there, he induced a double play and then got out of the inning with a groundout, limiting the damage to just one additional run. Then he came back out and threw a perfect eighth inning. That was enough to allow his offense to get to work, and they did with four runs in the bottom half of the eighth, on the way to a 5-3 victory.
It was a similar story on Saturday. Thompson came on when a hit by pitch started the Arizona half of the seventh inning. After an infield popup, a caught stealing, and a strikeout, he was out of the inning. Then he pitched a 1-2-3 eighth inning to set up closer Joey Gerber for the save in the 4-3 Illinois win.
If this weekend is any indication, Illinois has found the reliever they trust most in the stickiest situations.
“When the moment calls, I can definitely be that guy to come in, or if you need to stretch me out to three innings, I can definitely do that,” Thompson said. “So it’s kind of a dual role. Whenever they need me, I’m ready.”
2. Jon Olson Dazzles
It’s a compliment to say that UCLA’s Jon Olson threw an uneventful complete game on Saturday in a 4-1 win against Michigan State, because he was just on cruise control for the entire game, with few exceptions.
In his nine innings, he gave up five hits and one run, which came on a solo homer from MSU’s Justin Antoncic, with no walks and eight strikeouts, all on just 99 pitches. Other than the home run, Olson never allowed a Spartans batter to reach second base, and of the five MSU hits, four came from two players- Antoncic and Ryan King, although even with those two hitting back-to-back in the MSU order, none of their four combined hits came in succession.
Olson is now 2-0 on the season with a 2.08 ERA. In 21.2 innings of work, he’s struck out 20, walked just five, and held opponents to a .167 batting average. Combined with Jake Bird, who has a ridiculous 0.49 in three starts, and Zach Pettway (0.69 ERA), who is slated to throw Sunday against Minnesota, UCLA is once again loaded in their rotation.
3. Michael Toglia’s Power is Real and it’s Spectacular
Saturday’s game was an incredible showcase for everything that Michael Toglia can do in the batter’s box, and on the bases, for that matter.
Let’s take a spin through his day at US Bank Stadium.
In his first at-bat, with two outs in the first inning, he rocked a 3-2 pitch the opposite way for a solo homer. Leading off the fourth, he hit a rocket, again on a 3-2 pitch, into the left-center gap. It didn’t make it all the way into the gap, so he had to turn it on and hustle into second base to collect a double. In the fifth, he hit a ringing single up the middle. In his final plate appearance, he flipped around to hit right-handed for the first time and drew a walk before stealing second base.
All told, Toglia is now hitting .486/.583/.973 with six doubles, four homers, ten walks, and 11 RBI, giving UCLA a threat in the middle of the order that they haven’t had perhaps since Cody Decker, who hit 47 home runs over the course of four seasons at UCLA.
4. Key Bats Shows Signs of Waking for Arizona
It’s no secret that offense has held Arizona back in the early going this season. After a 4-3 loss to Illinois on Saturday that featured just six hits for the Wildcats, they are hitting .218 as a team. With only the six hits, Saturday’s game may not have provided a ton of positives from an offensive standpoint, but it’s worth noting who collected some of those hits, as they came from some of the guys Arizona will need the most moving forward.
Ryan Haug, who came into the game hitting .188, went 2-for-4 with an RBI. He already provides plenty of value as a defensive outfielder (his arm alone has prevented a couple of runs this weekend), but his coming around offensively would be a huge development.
Also, while it may have been just a 1-for-4 day overall, Nick Quintana came through in a big spot in the sixth inning with an RBI single that put Arizona up 3-2. He’s hitting .211 at this still-early juncture, but he’s as electric a bat as Arizona has in the lineup when he’s swinging it well. All but one of Arizona’s losses have been by one run, and the one that wasn’t was a 5-3 loss to San Diego in the Tony Gwynn Legacy Tournament. Once some of the key cogs in the lineup get going, as some showed signs of doing on Saturday, you have to figure those close games will start to go Arizona’s way.
5. Michigan State Freshman Duo Shows Promise
Things haven’t gone like Michigan State would have wanted in this tournament thus far, as they’ve taken a 4-3 loss to Washington and a 4-1 loss to UCLA, but a real bright spot has been the play of two precocious freshmen, Zach Iverson and Ryan King, who have already established themselves as catalysts in the Spartans’ order.
On Friday, when most Michigan State hitters were understandably struggling against Washington ace Joe DeMers, Iverson was having success. In the third inning, he collected MSU’s first hit of the game, a double into right-center field, breaking up a lengthy no-hit streak for DeMers that spanned three different games. Then, he led off the eighth inning with a single to left, starting a rally that would eventually chase DeMers from the game.
King, meanwhile, shined on Saturday against Jon Olson, one of the few hitters in the order to do so on a day when Olson was having so much success, with sharp singles in the sixth and ninth innings. And while Iverson went hitless on Saturday, he did flash solid glove work at the hot corner, including a diving stop and throw on a sharp Jake Hirabayashi grounder.
King, in particular, is off to a fast start this season, as he leads the Spartans in hitting at .345. Iverson, meanwhile is third on the team in hitting with a .267 average and comes in second in slugging percentage at .467.
6. Toby Hanson Wears Out Washington Pitchers
Toby Hanson wore out Washington pitching on Saturday night, both figuratively and literally.
For one, he had a fantastic day at the plate, singling and scoring in the second inning and ripping an RBI double to left-center in the third, but he also literally served to wear out UW pitching by forcing them to throw an exorbitant amount of pitches to him.
His single in the second was the culmination of a ten-pitch at-bat against Huskies starter Chris Micheles. His double in the third was also at the end of a ten-pitch at-bat. That’s 20 pitches for just two at-bats. Let’s look at it another way. In his start, which came to an end after the Hanson double made it 3-1 Gophers, Micheles ended up throwing 64 pitches. Nearly a third of those were to Toby Hanson alone.
The source of this type of effort is pretty unsurprising, as Hanson has been one of the steadiest hitters in the Minnesota lineup for the last three years. There are plenty of reasons to like the Gophers’ offense, and Hanson is at the top of that list.
7. Terrin Vavra Showcases Power
Speaking of the Gophers’ offense, Terrin Vavra put on a power display against Washington on Saturday night that you might not have seen coming. Through his first two seasons with Minnesota, he’s certainly been more of a contact hitter than one you would expect to see launching balls over the baggie in right field, but that’s what we saw on this night.
On an 0-1 pitch from Chris Micheles, Vavra lifted one out to right that not only went over the home run line on the baggie, but cleared the baggie altogether, landing in the seating deck just above it. Vavra also led off the fifth inning by hitting a rocket to deep left field that forced Washington left fielder Jack Johnson to make a catch as he banged up against the fence. For good measure, Vavra also singled up the middle to start off the eighth inning, capping off an outstanding day at the plate.
Over two seasons, Vavra has three home runs in a Minnesota uniform, and in one day, he nearly had two. With that performance, there’s reason to believe that there’s more pop in his swing than we’ve seen from him to this point in his career.
8. Zac Taylor Provides Defensive Spark
Before the season is over, it’s a safe bet that Illinois center fielder Zac Taylor will have provided value offensively. Throughout his time at Houston, before his transfer to Illinois, he showed the ability to spray line drives all over the field, get on base, put the ball in play, and wreak havoc on the base paths. So far this season, he’s struggled a bit at the plate to the tune of a .182 average, but all the while, he’s providing a ton of value in the field.
The diving catches stand out, obviously, and he’s had his share of those. In the bottom of the second on Saturday, he laid out to rob Arizona’s Mitchell Morimoto on a ball ticketed for the gap. To end the game and seal up the Illini’s 4-3 win over the Wildcats, he slid forward to take a hit away from Ryan Haug, who, as discussed earlier, is swinging it as well as anyone not named Alfonso Rivas in the Arizona lineup.
But then there are the plays that he makes look routine, which are far more common and mostly go unnoticed. Taylor ably runs balls down in the gaps with regularity and covers huge swaths of center field. It’s a tribute to how well he’s patrolled center for the Illini that he has simply played that position this season, pushing Doran Turchin, a two-year starter at the position, to a corner spot.
With an outfield featuring two center fielders, a double play combination in Michael Massey and Ben Troike who have played baseball together since they were kids and possess the type of middle infield chemistry that comes from that level of familiarity, and a plus defender at third in Grant Van Scoy, the Illinois defense is going to win the team some games on its own.
9. Washington Finds Offense in Unconventional Ways
Washington is a team that has to find ways to manufacture runs and make things happen beyond waiting for one big hit. Through nine games, they don’t have a single home run.
On Saturday, in their 6-4 win over Minnesota, they put runs on the board in just about every way imaginable, giving them just enough offense to pull off the come-from-behind victory.
In the second inning, a run came home when Jordan Schiffer got an infield hit and the throw to first base got away from Gophers’ first baseman Cole McDevitt. In the sixth, they got a run in a more traditional way, with a Nick Kahle RBI single, but that was followed up by a run scoring on a wild pitch that came on the third strike to Levi Jordan. Had first base not been occupied at the time, Jordan would have reached and the Huskies might have come away with more runs there.
In the eighth, A.J. Graffanino doubled home a run, which might seem like a routine way for a run to score, but Braiden Ward was moving on the pitch that ended up being the double, allowing him to score easily. In the tenth, interestingly, Washington came close to getting their first homer, as Jordan doubled home a run off the very top of the left field wall, and then Joe Wainhouse hit a ground rule double down the left field line.
That’s six runs, all coming in very different ways for a Washington team that just continues to find runs when they need them most.
10. Bullpen Work Leads Huskies to Victory
Things were really threatening to get away from Washington in the third inning of their game Saturday, when Minnesota plated three runs and forced UW starting pitcher Chris Micheles from the game. The Gophers were up 4-1 and they were hitting everything hard.
But the the Washington bullpen took over and the game changed.
Lucas Knowles entered during that big third inning for Minnesota, and although the first hitter he faced, Micah Coffey, tripled off of the baggie in right field, scoring an inherited runner, he settled things down. By the time he was done, he had thrown 4.2 scoreless innings, giving up three hits with no walks and three strikeouts. Behind him, Leo Nierenberg threw 1.2 scoreless innings, and Stevie Emanuels tossed 1.1 perfect innings. The effort from that trio was enough to give the offense time to work and lead the Huskies to a 6-4 win.
Pitching in general has been a strength for Washington thus far (they have a 2.49 team ERA), but the bullpen, in particular, has put in strong work, with Emanuels (0.90 ERA), Knowles (1.35 ERA), and Alex Hardy (1.42) leading the way.