Happy Opening Day!

Feb 14, 2020

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Spent the last 2 hours looking for a Happy Opening Day card for my wife. All I saw was pink hearts and some little dude with an arrow. Evidently there's some fake-holiday today for archery.

Back to the real task at hand -- Fighting Illini baseball.

If you look at Illinois' baseball's best teams over the last decade, one of the bedrocks of the foundation built by Head Coach Dan Hartleb and Co. has been pitching.

After coming back to Illinois following a brief stint as a pitching coach in pro ball, Drew Dickinson became one of the most respected pitching coaches in the country. From 2012-2019, Dickinson turned out two Big Ten Pitchers of the Year, four All-Americans and, most impressively, 15 MLB draft picks. A lot of people, myself included, assumed he was Hartleb's heir apparent. But then he went and took a job at Virginia.

The timing was not great. By mid-September, most of the elite options have stepped off the coaching carousel.That Hartleb might pluck someone from pro ball never crossed my mind, so when Mark Allen's name popped up on my Twitter alert, I was shocked on a number of levels. After all, the recent trend has been college coaches jumping to pro ball -- not vice versa.

As I alluded to in my article about Allen, he comes from an organization with a great track record of developing pitchers! The Indians 2019 roster had six home grown arms on the roster in 2016 -- four of which reached the bigs in three years or less! Allen isn't shy when advocating for development!

"Some people might not like me saying this," Allen said. "But I almost care more about developing players than winning because if you're developing guys consistently, you're going to win consistently!"

Allen inherits a staff that lost Friday night starter Andy Fisher (who absolutely dominated the lower levels in the Reds' system as an undrafted free agent) and Sunday starter Cyrillo Watson (drafted in the 23rd round by the Dodgers). That leaves 2019's No. 2 starter, Sr. RHP Ty Weber (4-3, 3.28), to move into the ace role.

"Webby's a guy that's been a battlehorse, he's got some stars and bars," Allen said. "He's been really good here."

Allen was cognizant of the fact that as a fourth-year player, Weber might not be fitted for the developmental track so many of his pitchers were headed for.

"That's a tricky spot for a coach," Allen said. "With a guy like Ty, I might see certain things that I would normally tweak, but if I take something here or add something there, then we've changed the cornerstone of what he does and what's helped him be so successful.

"Ty's been a huge help to me. He's allowed me to bounce some ideas off of him and he's kind of filled me in on the staff."

The first weekend out, the remaining two rotation spots will be manned by Soph. RHP Ty Rybarczyk and Soph. RHP Aidan Maldonado.

Rybarczyk spent his freshman year across town at Parkland College, where he finished 8-1 with a miniscule 0.96 ERA. He's doesn't have a prototypical power pitcher's frame -- Parkland listed him at 5-foot-9 -- but the fireballer from Hall High School in Spring Valley pitches with an aggressive tempo and doesn't back down from anyone. He gets the Saturday nod and, with an upper 80s fastball and a snap-dragon breaking ball, he will be fun to watch!

Maldonado was a heralded freshman arm, who made 13 appearances including five starts. He struggled to a 6.58 ERA and walked 30 while striking out 23. But the Minnesota native appeared to find his groove while in the Cape Cod League, where he struck out an impressive 15.6 hitters per nine innings! With a fastball up to 96, Maldonado is ranked as one of the top sophomores in the country

"We've got a group of eight guys that we stretched out to be able to go four or more innings right now," Allen said. "We think they could all potentially start games at some point this year."

Among that group are lefties Jimmy Burnette and Nathan Lavender. Lavender made 17 appearances, including four starts for the 2019 Illini and posted a 1-2 mark with a 4.08 ERA. Burnette, however, has made 12 appearances covering 8.1 innings with a 20.53 ERA. But something clicked for the junior lefty in the prestigious Northwoods League last summer, where he earned All Star honors after going 2-2 with a 3.66 ERA in 12 appearances (10 starts).

Burnette, whose fastball has been up to 92 mph, came to the Illini as a two-way player but is locked in on the mound now.

"With two-way guys, there's always a little delay," Allen said. "Last summer was a big momentum boost for him as far as going out and blazing his own trail.

"Now it's just a matter of keeping that momentum moving forward."

As for right-handers, Allen has two key pieces in Ryan Schmitt and Ryan Kutt. Schmitt (4-3, 3.38) has logged 67 appearances over his first three years -- 65 of them out of the bullpen. Nothing, says Allen, should surprise him.

"He's seen just about every situation you can see on a baseball diamond," Allen said.

As for Kutt, he logged as solid 3.79 ERA in 17 appearances out of the bullpen as a freshman in 2018 before missing last year thanks to Tommy John Surgery.

"Kutty has always been a strike thrower and a competitor," Allen said. "Him coming back is a huge bonus for us,

"His fastball is looking good, he's already sitting upper 80s and his slider has tightened up considerably. He's looked really good."

Those four, along with Sr. LHP Josh Harris gives Allen a steady group of relievers to bridge the starters to the closer. Ah yes, the closer. How could we forget returning All-American Garrett Acton and his 19 saves that led the country. THE COUNTRY. (BTW, can someone please explain to me how the national leader in saves returns and he isn't even listed among the TOP 10 relievers in college baseball as one such publication did last week??? On a plus note, Baseball America named Acton's fastball the best in the Big 10).

Acton is a tough AB for a hitter. He's got a short, funky arm action that hides the ball well and then he uncorks 93-94 at you and at 93-94 that sometimes sails a little bit so you're light on your cleats. And then, he's capable of snapping off some truly filthy curveballs.

"That's a pretty big insurance policy," Allen said. "To know that you've got a pretty big bullet left to fire is reassuring.

"We're not going to stray too far from the base with him. He's gotta throw strikes early, establish his fastball and then let his curveball do its work."

With the returning presence, we haven't even mentioned a single freshman yet and there are some gems in this class. Lefties Cole Kirschsieper and Alex Vera fall in the group that could push Lavender and Burnette for lefty work, while righty Grant Leader and his wicked quick arm produce 93 mph fastballs that could serve as a nice apprenticeship to Acton at the back end.

"We've got some experience returning, but it's still a younger staff," Allen said. "At some point, these freshmen and sophomores are going to be called upon to pitch some important innings."

Week 1

The Fighting Illini are in Winston-Salem to kick off the Spring for the second year in a row. Last year, Hartleb's club swept Georgetown, Sacred Heart and host Wake Forest to serve notice that they were going to be in the national conversation.

This year, the Illini 9 will face Milwaukee on Friday at 5 p.m. (CT) followed by a 9 a.m. game against Seton Hall on Saturday and a 1 p.m. tilt against the No. 18-ranked hosts on Sunday to close out the weekend.

It could be an interesting weekend. The squad was originally schedule to fly out of Chicago Thursday afternoon, but the winter storm that socked Illinois overnight played havoc with flight schedules and the Illini were forced to re-book at 10 p.m. departure. That flight didn't leave Chicago until 12:24 a.m. this morning and they didn't arrive in Winston-Salem until 5 a.m., hence the re-schedule.


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