Back to the Future Part III (Infielders)
I really thought about just leaving these three GIFs here as the infielders edition of our Illini 9 preview. To quote one of my favorite shows, however, that seems like lazy journalism. Plus these young men deserve to be lauded and discussed.
2B Michael Massey
-- Illinois Baseball (@IlliniBaseball) June 21, 2018
SS Ben Troike
-- Illinois Baseball (@IlliniBaseball) May 24, 2018
3B Grant Van Scoy
-- Illinois Baseball (@IlliniBaseball) April 27, 2018
Let's start with Massey. The junior from Chicago Brother Rice is currently ranked as the No. 2 draft prospect in the Big 10 and a projected fourth-round draft pick by D1baseball.com. In addition to hitting .326 last year with 17 doubles, three triples, six home runs and 46 RBIs, he also made just ONE ERROR in 166 chances. His flawless fielding was part of an error-free streak spanning 60 games and nearly a full calendar year! For his efforts, Massey earned the Rawlings Gold Glove at second base!
Troike wasn't as solid with the glove (14 errors in 2018), but he made some truly spectacular plays and was almost as potent offensively. The junior from Tinley Park reached base in the first 52 games of the season, part of a streak of 57 consecutive games reaching base that stretched back to the 2017 season as well. Troike finished the year hitting .299 with eight doubles, one triple, four home runs and 30 RBIs. He also walked and was hit by pitches more than he struck out, which gave him a .402 on-base percentage!
"In my opinion, they are one of the best, if not the premier, middle-infield combo in the country," Hartleb said. "There's a trust there and they communicate so well. They do what it takes to win baseball games, whether we need a hit, or a baserunner or need to move a baserunner, they do it."
As for Van Scoy at third base, he is absolutely on par with the aforementioned dynamic duo defensively. But like some of his teammates, the bat needs to make a major improvement to hold on to his spot in the lineup. The junior-college transfer hit just .234 for the season, including a .180 mark in Big 10 play.
"I think a year of experience will help Grant," Hartleb said.
For all the superlatives, however, there is a pall hanging over the Illini infield. How do you replace the Collegiate Baseball National Player of the Year at first base? You can never recreate Bren Spillane's magical 2018 season of a .389 batting average, 17 doubles, two triples, 23 home runs and 60 RBIs, but you have to have someone who can hopefully give you a combined 20-30 extra base hits with 30-40 RBIs.
Hartleb mentioned Michael Michalak potentially, whom we discussed in the outfielders' preview, fitting here as well. Michalak's fit will depend on that of the two freshmen infielders brought in to eventually replace Troike and Massey - Branden Comia and Cam McDonald.
Comia, along with Jacob Campbell and Aidan Maldonado were the most heralded recruits in this Freshman class. The Orland Park Sandburg alum ranked as the No. 13 shortstop prospect in the country by Prep Baseball Report and the No. 4 prospect in Illinois' Class of 2018.
"Branden could play any of the four infield spots with ease," Hartleb said. "Offensively, we led him off on our foreign trip (to Curacao and Aruba) and we liked what he brought to the table there as well.
What Comia brings is a unique blend of speed and power. Prep Baseball Report clocked his lowest 60-yard dash at 6.64 seconds and this Fall, according to the Illini advanced metrics scouting via FlightScope, he was routinely barreling balls with exit velocities in the upper 90s and even low 100s.
Absolutely crushed by @b23comia. ??
Watch the homer with the Papiamento call ?? pic.twitter.com/fxaFw6iUg8
-- Illinois Baseball (@IlliniBaseball) November 22, 2018
Hartleb is equally excited, though, about what McDonald can do as well.
"He's a special person who works extremely hard," Hartleb said. "And he gets no attention, kind of flies below the radar, compared to the other freshmen."
A lot of that probably has to do with McDonald's hometown of Ladd, population 1,218 (Side note: if you're ever in Ladd, go to Rip's and get the fried chicken. I literally have a standing order with friends in the Illinois Valley to bring Rip's chicken when they come to town. Legendary.). McDonald led Spring Valley Hall (enrollment 437) to the IHSA Class 2A state championship last Spring. The title capped off a two year span in which McDonald went from virtual unknown who first popped up at a Prep Baseball Report showcase on the Iowa campus to a top 350 player nationally.
"The great thing about Cam is that he doesn't care where you play him," Hartleb said. "We've played him at first base, third base, left field and center field in the Fall and he handled them all with ease and without complaint."
Whatever combination Hartleb uses on the infield, they figure to be kept busy thanks to an outstanding pitching staff that doesn't plan on letting a lot of balls find the barrel. Check back tomorrow for our final day of previews: The Illini 9 hurlers.