Injuries are a nightmare to any coach.
At the professional level, they can be somewhat overcome so long as you've got cap room or exceptions available to you. At the high-school level, you unfortunately just have to play the hand you're dealt. Nobody expects you to replace an all-stater with another all-stater…that just doesn't happen.
At the college level, though, it's a 'tweener. On the one hand, you've got depth (or at least should if you're recruiting right). On the other hand, is that depth ready to be the man??? Probably not.
That's why I look at Illinois' current pitching staff and wonder what 6-12 might look like if Doug Hayes was still the Illini's Friday night starter. Don't get me wrong, Hayes is not in the same category as a Cody Sedlock or a Kevin Duchene, but he was a redshirt junior who had paid his dues all the way from the club team to the No. 2 spot last year as a RS-Soph and more than held his own as by posting a 6-5 record with a 3.58 ERA.
Pitching injuries wreck depth in a hurry. All of a sudden, your Saturday and Sunday starters are bumped up a notch and your Sunday guy is now either the guy who was closing games for your or your mid-week guy. Not to mention the fact that you're now trying to cram 56 games into roughly 3 months with just 14 arms as is. There's no call-ups directly from the club team in mid-season.
Ideally, the rotation this year would have looked something like this:
Friday - Hayes
Saturday - Cole Bellair
Sunday - Luke Shilling
Mid-week - Ty Weber
That's a very nice combination of skill and experience. Hayes and Bellair have been through the battles, Shilling and Weber were both drafted out of high school. Let's roll it out and see where we stand. Given how Weber has performed so far, in the scenario above, I could see Shilling being put into the closer's role, where he can just blaze away with his 95 mph fastball and change-up for 15-20 pitches.
I say all this to set you up for this stat - 138 of the 155 innings (89%) of the innings tossed by Illini pitchers, have been thrown by freshmen or sophomores! Offensively, 77.5 % of our hits have come from underclassmen.
What happened to the junior and senior depth? Two things - attrition and competition.
The Class of 2013 would now be seniors. In that class, the Illini signed five of the top 20 prospects in the state of Illinois (as ranked by Prep Baseball Report). Of those five, three of them are either gone or never made it to campus. Ryne Roper was the #1 overall player in the state according to PBR and the Illinois Gatorade Player of the Year as a senior at Harrisburg, but he left the program following his sophomore year in 2015 to transfer to Divvision II Union University, where he's currently hitting .310 and has two saves.
No. 10-ranked Cody Sedlock blossomed into an ace and was a first-round draft pick of the Orioles last year. No. 19 Miguel Hermosillo was supposed to be a two-sport stud for the Illini in football and baseball. But his 4.3 speed and his 90 mph arm from CF got drafted by the Los Angeles Angels in the 2013 draft.
That left RHP/1B Matthew James (#17) and C Anthony Drago (#18), both of whom have become regular contributors but not the standouts one might expect.
And then the Class of 2014 hit. Looking back, 2014 marked the first wave of craziness that hit Illinois baseball recruiting. In 2013, only 9 of the top 50 prospects in the state had gone to ACC, SEC or PAC 12 schools. In 2014, eight of the top 10 alone in the state of Illinois opted for a school in one of those powerhouse conferences.
In what was a small class anyway for the Illini, Hartleb nabbed only the #27 (C Mark Skonieczny) and #62 (RHP Quinten Sefcik) prospects in the state.
Hartleb quickly righted the recruiting ship with the Class of 2015, but those players, like Shilling and Bellair, are just now sophomores. And the best thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores. And the best thing about sophomores is that they become experienced juniors.
Coincidentally, there is help on the way for the Class of 2014. Orland Park Sandburg's Sean Leland originally chose to attend Louisville, but after struggling to find a lot of time behind a plethora of high draft picks, transferred to Illinois. He's sitting out the 2017 season and will have two years of eligibility remaining starting next year. He's a 6-foot-5 righty that was 87-89 coming out of Sandburg and if that wasn't enough, uses a very low ¾ arm action with a ton of whip (insert your own orange whip joke here).
In more current news, the Illini will open Big 10 play by hosting Michigan State for a three-game set this weekend.
Michigan State has played an incredibly tough schedule to open the year, including trips to Clemson and South Carolina. They've held their own as they are currently 12-5 overall and ranked #19 in the RPI.
The Illinois pitching staff picked up a bit of momentum on Tuesday night as the Illini beat Illinois State 7-1 on a combined three-hitter that featured Fr. RHP Cyrillo Watson making his first collegiate start and working three innings without giving up a hit and walking two and striking out two.
Drew Dickinson's staff will need that momentum moving forward as they face the Big 10's best offensive lineup. The Spartans are hitting .304 as a team and average a leage-best 7.8 runs per game.
In turn, the Spartans will have to slow down one of the best hitters in the league. Soph. CF Jack Yalowitz continues to make a case for Big 10 Player of the Year by ranking third in the Big Ten in batting average (.389), third in slugging (.653) and eighth in on-base percentage (.453). He's also third in the league in runs (18), third in hits (28), third in RBIs (22), third in triples (2), seventh in home runs (4), second in total bases (47) and seventh in stolen bases (7). (Thanks to fightingillini.com for those nuggets).