You could be forgiven for having somewhat low expectations for Toledo coming into this weekend’s tournament at Illinois. They came in with a 2-14 record, a team ERA over 6.00, and a team slash line of .221/.305/.307.
But now, we see how much of a difference one weekend can make.
Over four games in three days in Champaign, Toledo won more games than they had leading up to Friday, they scored more runs (33) than they had in the previous eight games combined (32), and while they didn’t lower the team ERA all that much, they got a couple of stellar pitching performances that should inspire confidence moving forward.
One such performance came today from senior righty Sam Schutes in the team’s 10-4 win over Illinois. He kept the Illini lineup off-balance from the first pitch of the game and ended up throwing six innings, giving up five hits and two runs with no walks and nine strikeouts.
And although the Illini touched him up for two runs, he was never really actually in any extended trouble. In the third, with two outs and a man on first, Jack Yalowitz came up with an RBI triple into the right field corner. Two pitches later, though, he was out of the inning. Then, in the fifth, left fielder Brad Boss misplayed an Anthony Drago fly ball (although it was ruled a double), which led to Drago coming home on a Trent Hammond single later in the inning.
“He did a fantastic job,” said Toledo head coach Cory Mee. “I thought he really mixed his pitches well. He was consistently ahead in the count. Illinois is a tough team to pitch to. They’re scrappy, they’re tough guys to strike out, and he made some big pitches with two strikes. He was outstanding today.”
That outing comes one day after Ross Achter threw six innings, giving up two hits and one unearned run with one walk and five strikeouts in a 10-2 win over Southern Illinois. If what we saw this weekend is indicative of what Toledo can expect the rest of the season, Mee and his staff have to like the way a rotation of Steven Calhoun (1-0, 4.03), Achter (2-2, 2.16), and Schutes (2-3, 4.55) shapes up ahead of MAC play.
Offensively, there’s no other way to put it, the Rockets stung the ball in their tournament finale and got contributions up and down the lineup. They pounded out 11 hits against the Illini, with A.J. Montoya, Michael Ryan, and Antonio Bennett collecting three hits each. Three different players, Ross Adolph, Dalton Bollinger, and Malave Bettinger (who also scored three times), drew two walks. Montoya and Ryan also both had home runs.
“We’ve gotten good starting pitching all year long,” said Mee. “We’re starting to sort out things in the bullpen a little bit. But I’m really pleased with the way we’ve come along offensively. I feel like we’re putting up a lot of quality at-bats, having some really clutch at-bats where we’re driving in some runs, and defensively, we’ve really cleaned things up since the first couple of weekends and we’re playing like we need to.”
It remains to be seen what kind of season Toledo will have in MAC play, but it seems pretty clear that this is a team that was much better than their 2-14 record would lead you to believe.
Part of that ugly record to start the season was the tough out-of-conference schedule that they’ve played. Over their first 16 games, they played two against 2016 regional team Binghamton, a single game against 2016 super regional team Boston College, three against a now-ranked South Florida team, and three against 2016 regional team (and perennial regional participant) Florida Atlantic. Now, perhaps, that experience is paying off.
“Our philosophy is to really challenge ourselves earlier in the year to prepare ourselves for what we’re going to see in our conference, and hopefully by the time we get to our conference, we’ve kind of seen everything,” said Mee. “We took our lumps a little bit early, but our goal is to get better every day and our guys are doing a good job of working in their preparation and we are getting better. Now we’re getting some results to show that.”
Shilling Dazzles, Frustrates in Equal Measure
There’s little confusion about why the Texas Rangers selected Illinois pitcher Luke Shilling in the 20th round in 2015 and why MLB scouts are still turning up in big numbers (including Sunday in Champaign) to see him throw.
At 6’5″ and 260 pounds, he cuts an imposing figure out on the mound, and he’s got the stuff to match. His fastball runs well into the mid-90s and he’s got a slider that serves as an effective complementary pitch when he can command it.
But at the same time, it’s just as plain to see why his days in an Illinois uniform have been far from easy. He badly struggles with command, and that’s often his undoing.
In his start on Sunday, we saw a little bit of both sides.
On the positive side of things, he fanned eight hitters in his six innings of work and limited SIU to five hits. On the other hand, he walked five batters and uncorked two wild pitches, both of which brought in runs from third. In what ended up being a 3-1 loss, those were back-breakers.
“There were some things today that were better than they have been,” said Illinois head coach Dan Hartleb. “He did have the eight strikeouts, but he still continues to have the walks. And the thing that bothers me the most in that situation is just that he doesn’t have great composure. You watch his body language and there’s just too much going on there. It’s a very good arm, Luke’s a very good person, and he needs to continue to mature in some areas so that he can be consistent and really help us.”
It really feels like Shilling is a pivotal player for the Illini this season, as they’ve struggled to get consistent starts around freshman Ty Weber. Cole Bellair, an effective starter last year, is sporting a 9.00 ERA. Quinten Sefcik has started a couple of games, and he’s got a 7.24 ERA. Matthew James, after appearing in relief five times this season, got a start on Sunday against Toledo, but he was touched up for four earned runs in four innings of work, pushing his season ERA to 7.56.
Shilling, for all his command struggles and his 5.87 ERA to this point, is still the guy with the best tools to be successful in a big way for this team, and while he’s teased being able to do just that, he’s still got quite a way to go.
Assorted Notes from the Weekend in Champaign
- SIU senior starting pitcher Joey Marciano is something of a Luke Shilling-light, both in terms of prospect status and shortcomings in the near-term. He’s almost certainly SIU’s top pitching prospect, with a strong build and a left-handed arm that can fling a fastball into the low-90s, and he can pile up the strikeouts. He has been more productive than Shilling, as he was a quality weekend starter for the Salukis a year ago (4-7, 3.78), but he suffers from some of the same things that ail Illinois’ big-armed righty at times, and we saw that on Sunday afternoon. He held the Illini scoreless with just one hit through five innings, striking out eight along the way, but he could only get through five innings because his pitch count was at 93 and he had walked four batters. That’s something that SIU will look to have him clean up in order for him to take the next step in his development.
- The Illinois middle infield duo of Michael Massey and Ben Troike is going to be fun to watch over the next few years. Both are smooth and composed beyond their years, they already seem to have great chemistry as a tandem, and with the season about one-third gone, each has just a single error to their name.
- Replacing Jason Goldstein behind the plate was one of the tallest tasks facing the Fighting Illini coming into the 2017 season, and while no one has yet made the Illini faithful forget about Goldstein’s exploits, David Craan has shown flashes of being able to more than hold his own behind the dish. On Sunday, he threw out two SIU baserunners, with the most impressive coming in the SIU third inning. The Salukis’ Greg Lambert, a fleet-footed runner with six steals already this season, took off for second, but was thrown out with time to spare by Craan, who received the pitch and fired to second in one fluid motion, without so much as getting up off of his knees. That’s what you call arm strength.
- Speaking of SIU baserunning, they’ve been incredibly aggressive so far this season. With 38 stolen bases, they’ve already equaled their total from all of last season, and with 11 stolen bases on his own, Connor Kopach has eclipsed the total put up by any individual player in 2016. With theirs also being a lineup with pop from top to bottom, it’s the type of offense that can beat you in a lot of ways.
- After Saturday’s win over Illinois, SIU head coach Ken Henderson mentioned that the bullpen is a place where they are still sorting things out, but they seem to have found a good one in freshman Alex Gutermuth. Although the Illini seemed to solve him a bit as he worked into his third inning on the mound and he ended up being tagged with a run, he’s been outstanding thus far in 2017. Over 11.2 innings in relief, he’s got a 0.77 ERA and a .154 opponent batting average. He and veteran closer Ryan Netemeyer (2.13 ERA, 7 SV) make for a quality one-two punch.