Baseball in a Blizzard
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As I write this, it's snowing outside. Not just snowing, it's coming down hard. And the sky was just some weird pink tint. This may be the end times. But you know what they say, if there's snow on the ground, it must be baseball season. checks notes for quote source Nope, nobody ever said that.
At any rate, while some of us are out scrambling for cards, flowers and candy tomorrow, Illinois Head Coach Dan Hartleb and his Fighting Illini baseball team will be opening the 2020 campaign against Milwaukee in Winston-Salem, N.C. The Illini are coming off a 36-21 campaign that saw them return to the NCAAs for the first time since the magical 2015 season. But it's the 2016 season that Assistant Coach Adam Christ was reminded of when I spoke with him the other day.
Following the 2016 season, Hartleb and Christ, the Recruiting Coordinator, knew they needed to re-load. They brought in a heralded freshman class that included future draft picks Michael Massey, Ben Troike and Cyrillo Watson, not to mention rotation stalwart Ty Weber.
The 2017 team scuffled to a 23-28 record overall and a 9-15 mark in Big 10 Conference play -- good for 10th.
Now, Massey, Troike and Watson have moved on after leading the Illini to a 36-21 record as junior in 2019 and a 15-9 mark in the Big 10 as the returned to the NCAA tournament.
"The biggest difference between 2017 and now is the nucleus we have returning," Christ said. "We didn't have that luxury in 2017 and all the arms were freshmen."
The current returning nucleus includes RBI leader Cam McDonald, returning catcher Jacob Campbell, returning middle-of-the-order hitter Kellen Sarver and fourth-year starting pitcher Ty Weber.
"We added some nice pieces," Christ said. "Now it's just going to come down to how well we execute the little things."
Lost: 2B Michael Massey (Draft -- 4th round (Royals); .317, 14 2B, 1 3B, 5 HR, 28 RBIs); SS Ben Troike (Draft -- 11th round (Rays); .260, 13 2B, 1 3B, 2 HR, 21 RBIs); 3B Grant Van Scoy (Graduation -- .347, 13 2B, 1 3B, 2 HR, 22 RBIs)
Outlook: There is good news, however. Massey was limited to DH duties for the first several weekends of 2019 and Troike later got banged up as well. The replacement in both cases was highly-touted freshman Branden Comia, who ended up seeing action in 46 of 57 games with 42 starts. Comia finished the year hitting .255 with 5 2B, 2 3B, 4 HR and 22 RBIs.
Hitting coach Adam Christ is excited about what 2020 holds for Comia.
"He was arguably one of our best hitters down the stretch," Christ said. "There was a stretch between where Massey came back and Troike got hurt that he went to the bench.
"He kind of got to sit, take a deep breath and realize that even though he barreled a baseball, it might be an out, but you controlled what you can control and it didn't work out."
Now, Christ sees a different mindset out of the sophomore from Orland Park.
"He's learned not to let that 0-for-3 game turn into 0-for-6," Christ said. "That's the biggest jump a lot of freshmen need to make, whether pitchers or hitters, don't let things snowball on you."
Comia might see a lot of new faces on the infield, however, as both 3B Cam McDonald and Kellen Sarver may find themselves needed in other spots.
Among others likely to see time on the infield are a pair of freshmen: Brody Harding and Xavier Watson. Harding started at second throughout the fall and didn't just show off a great glove, but a bat ready to handle high-level pitching as well.
"(Harding) is just a true baseball guy, a real cage rat," Christ said. "It's hard to find guys like that anymore."
Watson will be tasked with filling much the same role that Comia filled a year ago.
"He's versatile enough for sure," Christ said. "He can play all three spots."
Also in the mix is junior-college transfer Alex Steinbach (Parkland College), who hit .343 with 11 doubles, 9 triples, 10 home runs and 50 RBIs for the Cobras a year ago. Steinbach was originally headed to Morehead St., but when the Eagles staff moved on, Steinbach opted out of his Letter of Intent just as Hartleb and Co. were looking for an infielder after the June draft.
"He's a big physical guy who can run a ball out of the park pretty quick," Christ said.
Speaking of physicality, a pair of newcomers figure to spell Sarver at first base as he steps back into his natural position at catcher. Junior-college transfer Garrett McGowan (6-3, 240 pounds) and Fr. Justin Janas (6-2, 230) will both be called upon to provide some thump in the middle of the lineup.
McGowan, in particular, has put up some impressive metrics when it comes to hitting a baseball in the early-going. Just check out this tweet by the Illini's own analytics guru, Charlie Young.
- 111mph scorcher
- 109mph, 427ft bomb that shattered a light
-- Charlie Young (@youngcharles02) January 25, 2020
Those are some MLB type exit velocities. And the broken light??? That's just Roy Hobbs-esque. (Look it up young'uns). (Fun fact, did you know the four hardest hit baseball last season in MLB were all SINGLES, including Giancarlo Stanton's 120.6 mph scorcher).
As for Janas, you can practically hear Christ salivate when he says "Janas has the hit tool. It's going to be fun to watch him develop over the next couple of years."
Lost: CF Zac Taylor (Graduated -- Draft -- 25th round (Cubs) .321, 12 2B, 3 3B, 10 Hr, 29 RBIs, 23 SB); RF Jack Yalowitz (Graduated -- Draft -- 10th round (Rockies) .295, 15 2B, 1 3B, 5 HR, 31 RBIs)
Outlook: McDonald is the lone returnee who saw consistent time in the green. The depth here could be tested if McDonald is needed on the dirt, but he'll see time in LF again primarily.
"He could see a little time at 3B," Christ said. "But most likely in LF."
A year ago, Hartleb could barely contain his glee at the prospect of penciling McDonald into the lineup for the next three years. He proved prescient as McDonald consistently hit in the middle of the order and ended up leading the Illini in RBIs with 34 as a freshman. He also made some spectacular plays in the outfield.
"He's a true throwback," Christ said. "He's a go-getter, just not going to be stopped."
"He's got a chance to be real productive and drive in a lot of runs."
He'll also inherit two newcomers who, while new to the team, are still older than him -- junior college transfers Taylor Jackson (Kirkwood) and Nathan Aide (Madison College).
Jackson will patrol center field, but Christ is excited to see what he can do with the bat. At Kirkwood, the Chicago native hit .361 with 6 home runs and 54 RBIs along with 14 stolen bases as a sophomore.
"He's a little more advanced," Christ said. "He's got great hand-eye coordination and can move the ball around the field, but he's still got some thump."
Aide's speed is his calling card. The Franklin, Wis. native earned NJCAA All-American honors after hitting .353 with 13 2B, 3 3B, 2 home runs, 21 RBIs and 16 stolen bases.
"He's toolsy, can really run," Christ said. "And he's shown signs of being able to handle the bat."
Andrew Dyke returns as the Illini's best defensive outfielder as well and freshman Danny Doligale could see time as well. Freshman Andrew Kim may make the same transition as McDonald from the infield to the outfield.
"Overall, it will be one of the better defensive outfields we've had," Christ said. "It's just a matter of seeing how the offensive aspect plays out."
Lost: Jeff Korte (Graduated -- .226, 2 2B, 2 3B, 3 HR and 23 RBIs; threw out 8 of 24 attempted steals)
Outlook: Jacob Campbell came to Illinois as one of its highest-rated recruits in its heralded Class of 2019. After splitting time with Korte in an effort to let his bat catch up, he now takes over the position after hitting .196 with 4 2B, 2 HR and 11 RBIs and also threw out 5 of 21 attempted base thiefs.
"By our series at Michigan St., he was putting together some really nice ABs," Christ said. "And he's made some really nice strides with his swing this off-season."
With a 1.87 second pop time, Campbell's catch-and-throw skills were never in doubt. With Sarver there to log time as well, the Illini figure to make opposing base-runners think twice.
"Sarver actually came to us as a catch-and-throw guy as well," Christ said.
It was Sarver's bat, however, that announced his arrival last tear. The Champaign native hit .269 with with 9 2B, 4 3B, 4 HR and 29 RBIs.
"He's turned himself into a pretty good hitter," Christ said. "And he's got a great eye at the plate -- he walked more than he struck out last year."
Sarver logged about half the summer with Rockford in the Northwoods League in order to get his catching legs back under him. He figures to see time behind the dish as well as first base and DH.
Check back tomorrow for the pitching preview and the weekend opener preview!
PS How amazing is it that Ayo's MRI turned up no structural damage. (Had to squeeze a little hoops in).