For the next two-plus seasons, when he sits down to make out his lineup card, Illinois baseball coach Dan Hartleb won't have to worry about the middle of the infield - Mike Massey and Ben Troike have it covered, just as they had during their travel-ball days too.
"Those two have been very good," Hartleb said. "The composure and maturity they have showed has just been phenomenal.
"Some freshmen, when they struggle with the bat, they let it carry over and affect their defense. The reason I wasn't worried about starting two freshmen up the middle was that these guys have been very good defensively."
Prior to the season, however, there was the matter of figuring out who would play which position. Ultimately, it came down to where Hartleb felt the two were more comfortable.
"They had played together with the (Cangelosi) Sparks and that's where they played with them, so we stuck with it," Hartleb said.
Each player is coming off their best month as a collegian so far.
Massey just finished the month of April on a 13-game hitting streak during which he posted seven three-hit games and hit .400 with runners in scoring position and .421 with runners on base. Over the final two weekends of April, he hit better than .500 in a pair of Big 10 Conference series against Purdue and Minnesota to earn back-to-back Big 10 Freshman of the Week awards.
Against Minneosta, a series the Illini won by exploding for 21 runs in the final 10 innings of the series, Massey was particulary good. The Brother Rice product hit .526 with three three-hit efforts, including two against the Golden Gophers.
"Mike is taking good swings right now," Hartleb said. "He's starting to lay off bad pitches and that's allowing him to see more pitches."
Seeing more pitches is particularly valuable from the lead-off spot, where he has helped jump-start the Illini offense by reaching base at a .429 clip while seeing 21 plate appearances from the lead-off spot during his hitting streak.
Massey has also solid defensively as he and Troike combined to turn 17 double plays during the month of April. And it is defense where Troike has shined throughout the month.
In the month of April, Troike had 92 fielding chances and committed just three errors - a .968 fielding percentage.
"When you're strong up the middle like that, it makes you better in all areas," Harleb said. "It's a comfort to their teammates to have two players like that up the middle."
As for the future, Hartleb likes what he can project down the road.
"They're both going to get stronger and that's really going to help better their offensive numbers," Hartleb said. "If they stay on this path, they have the potential to be very, very good."
In fact, the duo have Hartleb harkening back to two players he recruited to Illinois while serving as an assistant to Itch Jones - Josh Klimek and Brian McClure, who went on to be 10th and 11th round picks, respectively.
"Very similar to those two," Hartleb said. "Same type of potential."
The Fighting Illini will need Troike and Massey to be at their best this weekend when No. 24-ranked Maryland visits Illinois Field for a three-game series.