Mar 06, 2018

I'm going to write about Mark Smith tonight. Last night I was too depressed. So to tide you over until then, with Illini Baseball just completing their biggest weekend in three years, I asked Ben to write about the baseball team. So read this good news and then prepare yourself for tonight's depressing post.

This will be Ben's... fourth year writing baseball stuff here? I think that's right. Anyway, here's Ben:

Coming in to the 2018 season, Fighting Illini Baseball Head Coach Dan Hartleb had a message for his team.

"I know Illinois baseball enjoys a good reputation," said Hartleb, who has taken his team to NCAA regionals in 2011, 2013 and 2015. "But it's a reputation that not one of the kids in that locker room had helped build because they hadn't won here.

"I told them it was time to add their building block to that reputation."

While it's only the first week in March, the Illini laid the mortar for that building block by taking three games from PAC-12 opponents - No. 11-ranked UCLA, Arizona and Washington - to win the Dairy Queen Classic at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

"Coming in, I knew this team had talent," Hartleb said. "But I wasn't sure what type of leadership it had.

"To the kids' credit, from a mentality standpoint, they handled it well. They played the game hard and they weren't tight. Every time we stepped on the field, we had guys who believed they can play with anybody in the country."

That's an impressive mindset when you consider where three of the main players in this saga were just a year ago.

On Friday afternoon against UCLA, Hartleb and pitching coach Drew Dickinson decided to hand the ball to Jr. RHP Quinn Snarskis from Oak Park Fenwick. In 2017, Snarskis was a member of the starting rotation at St. Joseph's College, a Division II school in Rennselaer, Ind, where he posted a 6-6 record with a 4.38 ERA. At the end of the 2017 season, St. Joe's was forced to close because of a lack of funding. The NCAA declared that the Pumas' players were free to transfer anywhere without sitting for year.

In Snarskis, Hartleb saw a pitcher whose fastball was as high as 90 mph coming out of high school and who made it even tougher on hitters by varying his arm angle.

"I thought he'd be a great bullpen guy," Hartleb said.

Instead, Snarskis found himself in the Illinois rotation from the start.

"First, you have to give credit to (former St. Joe's coach) Rick O'Dette, who's always done a nice job finding and developing pitchers," Hartleb said. "To Quinn's credit though, he came in and did exactly what we asked him to do and busted his butt to get better.

"Now his velo is up (90-92 on Friday) and his curveball is better."

Against the Bruins, Snarskis tossed 5.2 innings and didn't give up a run, scattering five hits, striking out four and walking just two.

After Snarskis left and the Bruins scored three in the seventh off of Louisville transfer Sean Leland, it set the stage for another traveler on a strange trip - Jr. 3B Grant Van Scoy. The junior-college transfer from Southeast (Neb.) Community College drove in the game-winning runs with a line-drive up the middle to give the Illini a lead they would relinquish.

"One of the biggest question marks we had coming in was third base," Hartleb said. "Grant has been unbelievable defensively.

"He's stepped up and made that spot his."

Saturday saw another unlikely story come to the forefront when Hartleb chose to start R-Jr. LHP Andy Fisher against 2016 national runner-up Arizona. Fisher responded by going six innings and giving up three runs - all earned - on six hits with four strikeouts and no walks. It continues a remarkable transition for Fisher, who transferred from Eastern Illinois University after a sophomore year in which he was 1-4 with a 5.83 ERA in 46 innings pitched.

"Andy was in a tough spot," Hartleb said of the Illini legacy, whose father, Jim, graduated from the school in 1982. "A lot of guys sit out a year and they take a year off.

"Andy didn't take the year off, he took a year to get better."

At the back end of a bullpen which gave up just three runs in 8.1 innings all weekend was Jr. closer Joey Gerber. Back in his hometown, Gerber showed the kind of filthy offerings that made former Illini Tyler Jay and Cody Sedlock back-to-back first-round picks in 2015 and 2016 by closing out the first two games of the tournament.

"Early on, Joey was a little worried about his velo and was all over the place," Hartleb said. "He just flat-out pitched this weekend and you saw the results.

"The first night against UCLA he was 94-96, touching 97 with a wipe-out slider and then Day 2 against Arizona he was 93-95 with the same slider."

On Sunday, the familiar faces returned. Soph. RHP Ty Weber, who served as the Illini's Friday-night starter through much of the B1G 10 slate, faced a Washington team that had already beaten Michigan State and Minnesota to put itself in position for a title. Weber responded with seven strong innings, giving up just one run with 1 strikeout and 1 walk in a 7-1 win. Weber's fellow Wisconsinite, Ryan Schmitt, followed with two innings of shutout work to send the Illini home with a victory.

And we haven't even talked about the hitters yet! Adam Christ's offense put together 29 hits in three games against PAC-12 arms - 11 of them for extra-bases!

Leading the way was Jr. OF Bren Spillane. The 34th-round pick of the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2015 has made teams looking to pitch around All-America candidate Jack Yalowitz pay to the tune of a .382 batting average, including two doubles and three RBIs on the weekend.

"Bren has really matured," Hartleb said. "There came a point Sunday where he'd struck out twice and, in the past, you'd worry about that getting to him.

"I felt like he was pulling off and he processed that maybe these strikeouts were self-inflicted and, in his next at-bat, just hammers one off the baggie in right-center for a double."

And one can't forget the two-way standouts either. The sophomore double-play combination of SS Ben Troike and 2B Mike Massey impressed as well by each hitting safely in all three games. Massey, in fact, had three two-hit games. Between that and flawless defense up the middle, one national writer proclaimed that the duo doesn't have many peers when it comes to the best middle-infield in the country.

"Both of them can swing the bat and when your middle infield combined for just nine errors as freshmen, it's hard to believe there are many better duos out there," Hartleb said.

This will be the Illini's last weekend outside the state for a while as they head to Greenville, S.C. to take on Furman and Michigan St. on Saturday and Sunday.

The Illini are currently scheduled to open up the home schedule next Tuesday, March 13, against Wisconsin-Milwaukee at 4:30 p.m.


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