Sophomore Leap

Apr 15, 2017

Fighting Illini Head Baseball Coach Dan Hartleb knew almost immediately he had made a mistake in the opening game of Illinois' three-game series at No. 18-ranked Michigan.

"We're thin on pitching and I started thinking how we could win three games with the pitching we had," Hartleb said. "You never want to do that. It's one of the Cardinal rules of the game."

The Illini went on to drop the first two games of the series, 9-8 and 7-0, respectively, but rebounded with a 7-5 win in Game 3 to avoid a sweep.

That the Illini managed to win that game without much of an offensive impact from leading hitter Jack Yalowitz speaks to the potential of this Illini team.

"The cupboard's not bare," Hartleb said. "We've got talent and we can beat anyone in the country.

"But we are babies in terms of experience on the field and so every situation we find ourselves in is new to these kids and they have to figure out how to compete and win in those situations."

The Illini were in position to win Game 1 thanks to Yalowitz, who finished 2-for-5 with a home run and a triple. The sophomore continues to pace the Illini offensive attack from the lead-off spot by hitting .357 with 4 doubles, 3 triples, 6 home runs and 25 RBIs through 25 games.

Those numbers stand in stark contrast to his sophomore year, where he hit just .227 with 4 doubles, 1 triple, 1 home run and 22 RBIs in 41 games.

"He went through some struggles last year," Hartleb said. "He started trying to change everything instead of understanding that there are ups-and-downs to this game.

"He had to grow up a little bit and he did."

Hartleb has been particularly impressed by Yalowitz's re-dedication.

"He came back from break this year in tremendous shape, which he didn't do last year," Hartleb said. "The dedication he's shown over the last few months is paying off incredibly."

As for what Yalowitz's future looks like, the sky is the limit. When asked for former Illini who Yalowitz compares most favorably to, he came back with two answers that will make Illini fans very happy.

Defensively, according to Hartleb, Yalowitz compares favorably to former Illini two-sport standout Kyle Hudson, who was part of a Rose Bowl-qualifying football team and a 4th-round draft pick of the Baltimore Orioles in the 2008 draft. Hudson spent the last two seasons as a volunteer coach for the Illini before accepting a job with the Cleveland Indians.

"He can defend like Hudson," Hartleb said. "He doesn't have that top-end speed like Kyle, but he has great instincts and gets tremendous jumps on the baseball."

Offensively, Hartleb says the sophomore from Wilmette Loyola reminds him of former Big 10 Player of the Year Justin Parr, who led the Big 10 in hitting as a senior before being drafted in the 8th-round of the 2013 MLB draft.

"He has a very similar swing to Justin," Hartleb said. "What's really interesting is, Jack has more power than Justin did."

Yalowitz isn't the only one starting to come into his own either.

"Our pitching is really starting to figure it out," said Hartleb, who pointed to the fact that Fr. RHP/OF Cyrillo Watson picked up a pair of wins against Michigan and Missouri last week. Like the Wolverines, Miznoz has spent time in the Top 25 this year.

Perhaps even more impressive is the progress showed by Fr. RHP Joey Gerber, who has moved into the closer's role with 4 saves over the last 10 days. According to Hartleb, the young Minnesotan ran his fastball up to 95 mph when he closed the out the 7-5 win over Michigan on Sunday afternoon.

All told, Hartleb feels like his squad is headed in the right direction.

"We broke the season down into 10-game segments," Hartleb said. "We were 3-7 in our first 2 segments, which obviously isn't very good, but we're going to finish this current one either 5-5 or 6-4, so we're improving."

The Illini did indeed finish this segment 6-4 by beating in-state rival Illinois State 6-5 on Tuesday night.

The next 10-game segment started on Friday as the hated Wildcats from that school in Evanston came to town for a three-game series.


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