Welcome Home Diamond 9!
Editor's note: Tyler is still writing up last night's debacle against Iowa. Robert is still staring out the window into the expanseless void. So here's Ben talking about a team that, so far, is doIng this thing called "winning" and will hopefully continue that this weekend. ~ Robert
With two weeks left in the non-conference season, our Illini 9 are sitting at 10-3 overall. A big part of that is the pitching staff. Head coach Dan Hartleb and pitching coach Drew Dickinson have assembled a deep staff -- perhaps as deep as the 2015 team.
Dickinson was kind enough to take an hour of out of his day prior to this weekend's home-opening series against Southern Illinois to talk about his current stable of arms and their progression so far in 2019
"The one big difference between this staff and the 2015 staff is walks," Dickinson said. "The 2015 staff just gutted lineups every game, (walking 2.08 batters per game) and somehow that was still fourth best in the country because Cal State-Fullerton was just ridiculous.
"This staff isn't quite there yet. We're still walking 4.4 batters per game and, for me, that's too many. With 4.4 walks per game, somebody, at some point, is going to touch you up for a single or double that plates a pair of runs and you're gonna get hurt."
Overall, though, Dickinson likes where this group is headed.
"We've still got room for improvement and to me, that's exciting," Dickinson said. "I don't want them peaking right now, I want them peaking in May."
Dickinson and I broke down the starting pitching at each of the three levels -- starting pitching, bullpen and closer.
At the start of the year, Dickinson and Illini head coach Dan Hartleb faced a difficult choice for third starter: Ty Weber, who had started every weekend his first two years on campus, or Cyrillo Watson, who has had the best stuff on staff for his first two years on campus, but struggled to harness it.
"In the end, we went with Cyrillo," Dickinson said. "Ty, to his credit, handled it well and didn't complain, didn't pout, just went about his new role."
The battle proved fortuitous, however, as one member of the pitching staff stumbled. Quinn Snarskis, who occupied the No. 1 spot for the Illini a year ago, struggled out of the gate. In three starts, Snarskis gave up 20 hits and 11 earned runs in 10.1 innings.
"Last year wasn't a fluke," Snarskis said. "He located and got tons of soft contact.
"I can relate, that's how I had to pitch in order to be successful both here and in pro ball. But now he's not locating and he's getting hit."
Still, all is not lost for Snarskis.
"We've just got some small mechanical fixes to make," Dickinson said. "And then it's just a matter of getting some things to go right for him and get him some confidence.
"He'll be a mid-week starter for us and those games matter. Those aren't practice games. We need to win those games to get us to the postseason."
The ability to generate soft contact may also prove invaluable out of the bullpen when the Illini need ground balls in the middle innings.
That leaves Fisher in the No. 1 spot on Fridays with Weber following on Saturdays and Watson on Sundays. Fisher, to his credit, slid right into the role of ace without any problems. And while I believe that Dickinson is among the best pitching coaches in the country, he's quick to give Fisher just as much credit.
"He's turned himself into a dude," Dickinson said. "He's gotten stronger, every bit of his game has improved. It started last year against Michigan and he's just gotten better and better.
"His velocity has jumped from 84-87 mph to 87-89 mph and everything moves and his slider is just a phenomenal out pitch. A bad day for him now is three runs."
The biggest piece missing from this bullpen has been a bridge from the aforementioned starters to closer Garrett Acton.
With Jr. RHP Ryan Thompson out, Dickinson has been hosting tryouts to see who can fill that role. It appears after the GCU series that the role has been filled by R-Sr. RHP Sean Leland.
After earning Freshman All-America honors at Louisville in 2015, Leland suffered two bumpy seasons sandwiched around a redshirt transfer year. Following his first year with the Illini in 2018, there was talk that he might be on the move again.
"To his credit, Sean came back and said, I don't care what my role is, I just want to help this team reach the College World Series because we have that type of talent," Dickinson said. "I thought that was the turning point for him."
Leland has rediscovered his stuff, including an absolutely nasty slider.
"He's got plus-stuff," Dickinson said. "He's going to bridge it for us because he can either come in and get us one out or give us multiple innings."
Dickinson also plans to lean heavily upon Fr. RHP Aidan Maldonado (and Fr. LHP Nathan Lavender.
"They both have big arms," said Dickinson, while mentioning that the pair was up to 94 mph and 93 mph, respectively, in Arizona.. "But they are both still learning how to pitch at the college level.
"They're going to benefit from mid-week games as well because we plan on getting them some starts there too and then being a pretty good part of our conference rotation next year."
Soph. LHP Josh Harris and Sr. RHP Quinten Sefcik will be the top choices in short relief.
"They've both got closer-type stuff so they can also be used on the back end if (Garrett) Acton has been used a couple of days in a row," Dickinson said.
Acton, a transfer from Parkland College, has been nothing short of as advertised. Using a short, funky arm action, has racked up five saves in six appearances. The five saves have him tied for ninth overall nationally and tops in the Big 10.
The junior's fastball has climbed as high as 96 and he pairs it with a sharp, late-breaking curveball.
"He's by far been our most reliable reliever," Dickinson said.
About Southern Illinois
Mother Nature has already wreaked havoc upon this series. Instead of single games Friday, Saturday and Sunday, the teams will play a Saturday doubleheader starting at noon with the third game on Sunday at 1 p.m.
Offensively, the Salukis (10-5) will present some an interesting challenge for the Illini on the basepaths. The are among the top 10 teams nationally with 47 stolen bases as a team through 15 games. Senior grad transfer Will LaRue, who came from Xavier, is a perfect 12-for-12 in thefts.
Fortunately, it appears that Fr. C Jacob Campbell is up to the task after he threw out both GCU runners trying to run on him on Sunday.
Defensively, it should be a dynamite match-up in Game 1 on Saturday between Fisher and SIU ace Bradley Harrison, who is limiting opposing hitters to a .179 batting average against so far this year. But the rest of the Illinois rotation appears deeper.