Good News, Bad News
Don't look now loyal IlliniBoard readers, but I'm slowly turning Robert into an Illini baseball fan. To be clear, he's already a fan. I want to see Alioneye go full football fandom on baseball. I think I can get him to come up with an RSCI for baseball recruiting rankings.
Alioneye himself was fortunate to take in some Illini baseball Tuesday afternoon when our Illini 9 traveled to his hometown of St. Louis to take on SLU. I thoroughly enjoyed trading text messages with him throughout the game! The good news -- the Illini won with him present. The bad news -- they lost to SLU without him there on Wednesday, ending a seven-game winning streak.
Before Robert commits to full-time baseball fandom, he should know there's even fewer of us than there are his devoted Football 17. I don't know that I've ever met another diehard Illini baseball fan. Maybe we can start a movement!
At any rate. there was good and some bad over the last week.
Illinois continues to put itself in good position for the NCAA tournament. The RPI was released last week and the Illini currently sit at No. 12 overall. However, they've dropped both their games against RPI 1-25 teams. They need to beat teams like Indiana State (No. 17) and Illinois State (No. 27) to further bolster that. They'll take on both of those teams this week.
The Illini swept in-state rival Southern Illinois this weekend. They took the Saturday doubleheader by twin 5-4 scores and then rolled on Sunday 14-5, (Side note: we need to name this yearly series. Maybe the Itchy/Hartleb cup since the last two Illini skippers -- Richard "Itch" Jones and Dan Hartleb -- have either played or coached at Southern Illinois. Maybe the Battle for the Lawless Stretch of I-57 Between Mt. Vernon and Effingham? You guys get it.)
The Illini took Game 1 on a walk-off sacrifice fly by Fr. C Jacob Campbell. On the surface, Campbell is having a pedestrian year given the lofty credentials he came to school with (No. 5 prep catcher in the country, etc.). He's hitting just .143 with three RBIs. But the freshman is suffering a case of "at 'em balls" He absolutely crushed several baseballs this weekend. One in particular, in Sunday's game, was absolutely hammered into a stuff wind blowing in from dead center and he still put it on the warning track. I would kill to see the readout from Illini physics guru Charlie Young on that ball.
Campbell has also been stellar defensively going back to the Grand Canyon series when he threw out a pair of runners. SIU entered the season looking to steal more than 150 bases as a team and came into the weekend on pass to do just that. Heck, SIU came into the weekend with almost twice as many stolen bases as the Illini. Campbell threw out SIU speedster Will LaRue in Game 1 on Saturday and then allowed just one stolen bases on Sunday.
Game 2 Saturday required a little luck as the Illini scored the winning run on a passed ball.
Finally, Sunday, the bats broke out.
Champaign native Kellen Sarver continues to enjoy an incredible redshirt freshman season. He absolutely smoked a ball off of SIU starter Blake Begner in the third. Begner, to that point, had been fairly dominant against the Illini lineup. There was never a doubt about Sarver's roundtripper even as it traveled 357 feet into a biting headwind. Sarver is now hitting .357 with 2 doubles, 1 home run and 10 RBIs on the season and looks as though he will be the answer to Dan Hartleb's question "Who's on first" for the next three years.
Senior third baseman Grant Van Scoy has also been scalding hot recently, putting together a pair of three-hit games against SIU. His batting average has gone up nearly 200 points in the last two weeks. This was especially welcome as Fr. Cam McDonald has been forced to move to centerfield since mainstay Zac Taylor suffered an ankle injury in Game 3 of the sweep against Grand Canyon nearly two weeks ago. Hartleb hopes to have Taylor for the start of conference season, but McDonald has been no slouch in CF either considering he'd never played there before donning orange and blue last Fall. Check this out:
-- Illinois Baseball (@IlliniBaseball) March 16, 2019
Look at where McDonald starts. He's shaded to the first-base side of second and at the crack of the bat. There's no hesitation. He's just gone. And, eventually, he tracks down at the wall as somebody beautifully captured here:
-- Illinois Baseball (@IlliniBaseball) March 17, 2019
In the mid-week series at SLU, the Illini pitching staff had some control issues. Heralded freshman fireballer Aidan Maldonado, making his first collegiate start, went Nuke LaLoosh: the Minnesota native struck out five and walked five as the Illini racked up eight walks for the game. Things weren't much better on Wednesday as the Illini hurlers walked seven.
As Illini pitching coach Drew Dickinson alluded to last week, walks are the worst. They are free runs and it always seems as the baseball gods know when a free pass has been issued. In my opinion, they are even worse, however, because they can lull a defense to sleep. A baseball defender has to be ready at any point because you never know where the ball is headed. But it can get hard to stay locked in when hitters don't have to swing.
The Illini will need to get that cleaned up as they welcome Illinois State for a three-game set this weekend and then head to nationally-ranked Indiana State on Tuesday for an RPI showdown.
About Illinois State
The Redbirds are off to a 13-6 start under first-year head coach Steve Holm, who came to Normal after serving as pitching coach for a year at Purdue.
The outfield is a source of particular strength for Holm's first squad. Left-fielder Jordan Libman earned Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Week this week after going 12-for-18 with 2 doubles and 7 RBIs.
Even more impressive is centerfielder John Rave. The Bloomington product is an absolute speedster. I once saw him run 6.47 seconds in a 60-yard dash. When one scout asked him to run it again, he proceeded to run a 6.40. That. Never. Happens. Almost without fail, kids run slower on the second attempt. If you're wondering, that type of speed works out to roughly 4.3 in the 40-yard dash. Elite-level speed.
Rave is projected as a first-day pick in the 2019 MLB draft - I've heard some say as high as late first round, top of the second round -- after dominating the Cape Code League to the tune of a .333 batting average with 10 doubles, 1 triple, 5 home runs and 19 RBIs. He projects as another challenge for Campbell on the basepaths.
And if you get chance, tune into ESPN+ Tuesday night at 6 p.m. to watch the Illini take on ISU Blue as we refer to them here along I-74. The Sycamores are currently 16-2 overall and one of the hottest teams in the country.