The Big 10 Begins
As we begin the 2019 Big 10 campaign, let's stop and appreciate just how impressive our Illini 9's 17-5 start really is.
On the surface, this is kind of what we expected: Take a pitching staff returning almost all its starts and wins, not to mention one of its best relievers, add an offense returning a lot of veterans (but suffering the loss of one big piece in Bren Spillane) and then add perhaps the best freshmen class in program history. This is about where we should be.
But then you're in the shower this morning and this thought hits you: The Illini have only had their lineup of regular starters healthy for just two weekends - and not at all if you count not having pre-season All-American Michael Massey available to play defense. And on the pitching side, their Friday night starter loses his mojo and the rotation doesn't miss a beat.
In short, Dan Hartleb and his staff are doing some incredible work to keep this squad in the national conversation -- #25 in this week's D1baseball.com poll. And one member of that staff - hitting coach and recruiting coordinator Adam Christ - agreed to chat with me ahead of the conference opener at Iowa on Friday at 4:05 p.m. Overall, Christ has this bunch hitting .301 as a team. Perhaps most impressively is this little nugget that the Illini stats gurus dropped this morning. Illini hitters are reaching base 43.1 percent of the time when leading off an inning. That puts opposing pitchers in a pickle almost immediately.
"They're doing a really good job of controlling the strike zone and laying off pitches out of the zone," Christ said of his charges. "We're making them come to us."
All that being said, I thought we'd go through this 1-9(ish) just like Hartleb puts it on paper on game day.
1) Ben Troike, SS (.291/8 extra-base hits/16 RBIs) - Troike made his bones as one of the nation's best defensive shortstops for two years. The bat, however, needed a little time. It came on last year as part of a string of 57 straight games reaching base and it has improved despite a small dip in batting average from last year. Troike is coming off his first two-homer game in the Sunday finale against Illinois State.
Christ on Troike:"He's got a low K rate and will just keep fouling pitches off until he gets something he can hit and then he's going to put pressure on you. He's not a typical burner as a lead-off hitter, but he's got good baseball speed and can steal you a bag, be aggressive on his dirt-ball reads and go first to third."
2) Branden Comia, 2B (.260/4 XBH/11 RBIs) - Comia was an X-factor coming into the season. Would he see time at third base? First base? Outfield? With Troike and Massey returning at least for this year, Comia was going to have to play the role of understudy. But when Massey's lower back continued to prove balky, Comia stepped right in. He and Troike haven't missed a beat. Offensively, he's still learning, but that's part of the transition to college baseball, where the velocity registers higher and starters typically have at least one more, if not two, plus offerings they can throw for strikes.
Christ on Comia:"He's going to be a really good player when it's all said and done. He still has his freshmen ups and downs, but I'm really proud of his mental approach in games and practices. He's not just looking for the center-cut pitch anymore. Now, he's understanding what he can and can't hit and knows where he wants to look for something to hit."
3) Michael Massey, DH (.350/9 XBH/14 RBIs) - in an ideal world, Massey would be making headlines offensively and defensively, but his back continues to be a problem. The back, as I'm sure some of us know, is a fickle instrument. In Massey's case, it doesn't bother him hitting, but fielding is problematic. "What bothers him most is bending to field," Christ said. Massey, however, has been his usual steady self at the plate and continues to prove that he is pro-ready by collecting 12 hits in his last six games.
Christ on Massey:"What else can you say? He's just a great hitter. I think what's most impressive is his ability to make adjustments within the AB. Some guys can't do it until the next game, some guys can't do it until the next at-bat. He makes adjustments within the AB and you don't see that a lot at this level. That's what makes him a complete hitter."
4) Zac Taylor, CF (.400/11 XBH/8 RBIs) - Taylor has missed the last nine games with an ankle injury suffered in the finale of the Grand Canyon sweep. Even with their best hitter out, the Illini offense has averaged six runs per game. But don't think for a moment that Hartleb and Christ don't want him back in the lineup with his incredible mix of speed and power. But with a player with Taylor's skillset, you have to make sure they are back at full strength.
Christ on Taylor:"He's got a dynamic speed. With Zac, he's 100% all of the time, there's no half throttle. He's learned to understand his game. It's no all about pull-side home runs anymore even though he has plenty of power. Now, he understands if he takes that walk, he might be on third in two or three pitches with his speed. Guys like him buying in to what we have been trying to do has been instrumental. The young guys see guys like him being successful with his approach and say to themselves 'So that's how you're supposed to do it..'"
5) Kellen Sarver, 1B (.338/4 XBH/11 RBIs) - We touched on Sarver briefly in recent weeks. This kid was a walk-on catcher with pretty good catch-and-throw skills behind the plate, but some questions about his bat. Now, after redshirting in 2018, he not only finds himself in the lineup regularly, but tasked with playing the same spot as departed National Player of the Year Bren Spillane and hitting clean-up for a Top 25 team.
Christ on Sarver:He's made a big jump and it's because he dedicated himself. Halfway through his redshirt season, things started to click with his swing. He worked on being direct to the baseball and letting pull-side power happen."
6) Cam McDonald, 3B/CF (.305/2 XBH/19 RBIs) - Quick, everybody who had Cam McDonald leading this team in RBIs as a freshman, raise your hand. Now put them down because you sit on a throne of lies! I'm not sure anyone besides Hartleb and Christ saw this coming. Hartleb even alluded to it in the season preview when he alluded to how low McDonald was flying below the radar compared to the high profiles enjoyed by fab freshmen Aidan Maldonado and Jacob Campbell. In fact, Hartleb was positively giddy when talking about all the different ways he thought McDonald could make an impact on this team. It turns out he was right. When Taylor went down, McDonald stepped right into centerfield despite never having played there previously save a for a few Fall innings.
Christ on McDonald:"It's just a good, short swing with tremendous hand-eye coordination. We are really excited to see what he becomes. His versatility helps this lineup because you can plug him in at so many different positions."
7) Yalowitz, RF (.305/7 XBH/16 RBIs) - My continued mission to turn Robert into a full-on Illini baseball fan took another step last weekend when, after Yalowitz went yard in the series opener against Illinois State, the Bearded One sent a text that read "Sophomore Yalowitz back?" Indeed, it appears he is. Now, at some levels, you see a talented kid hitting 7-8-9 and putting up numbers, you think "feasting on fastballs." And that's frequently true. However, in this case, there's no secrets about Yalowitz. Every pitching coach in the Midwest remembers that 2017 campaign in which Yalowitz tortured their pitchers to the tune of 24 extra-base hits, including 12 home runs, and 44 RBIs. So those pitching coaches may be trying to sneak a fastball by Yalowitz early, but those look to be in danger of getting crushed again so you can bet he's being approached just like any other top hitter.
Christ on Yalowitz:"Swing wise, we just got him back to a good base. Mentally, he's in a good place and that just informs everything. He's going out there, trying to have fun and wants to win. And he's got a very consistent mental approach."
8) Jeff Korte (.250/3 XBH/10 RBIs)/Jacob Campbell (.194/2 XBH/4 RBIs) - Obviously, this has turned into a bit of a platoon situation. The trick with any platoon is making the right call about who to start any given day and so far, Hartleb has been pretty successful when choosing between these two. Both players have had outstanding moments, both offensively and defensively, this season.
Christ on Korte:"He's become a lot more consistent laying off pitches out of the zone and staying back on balls through the middle of the field. Plus, he's done a nice job of working with Campbell."
Christ on Campbell:"The game has really slowed down for him. He hasn't even begun to scratch the surface of how good he can be. Baseball people across the nation will know his name before he's done here at Illinois."
9) Grant Van Scoy, 3B (.377/4 XBH/6 RBIs) - As I said in the season preview, defensively, Van Scoy, a junior-college transfer, ranked right there with Massey and Troike as elite defenders. But Van Scoy's bat, which had been VERY productive at the junior-college level, lagged behind. Now, we are seeing the kind of numbers - at least average-wise - that Van Scoy produced at the JUCO level.
Christ on Van Scoy:"He was up-and-down early, kind of like last year. But lately, he's just been locked in. And he's done it with a pretty simple approach, just staying straight to the ball. And he's one of those seniors like Taylor and Yalowitz and Korte who will do whatever it takes to win the game."
"Our depth is what has sustained us through these injuries," Christ said. "The guys have really embraced this "next man up" approach, both in terms of what we're trying to do offensively and in terms of doing a job."
Ah yes, the hated Squawkeyes. Any discussion about Iowa has to start with head coach Rick Heller. When the Iowa job came open in 2013 there were a lot of familiar Midwest baseball names that were bandied about. A lot of folks thought maybe the Iowa administration had missed their primary target and were perhaps scrambling. Nope, they were just waiting for Rick Heller to come home. And come home he did, taking the Hawkeyes to the NCAA tournament in his second season and again two years later. Heller is one of just nine coaches nationwide to have taken three different NCAA Division I teams to the NCAA tournament.
The 2019 version of #Hellerball has been a bit inconsistent. They own a series victory over No. 19 Oklahoma State (in Stillwater no less), but they also dropped a non-conference series to Evansville and were swept last weekend by Indiana.
Since an 18-run explosion at Evansville on March 9, the Hawkeyes have averaged just 3.09 runs per game. They managed just four total runs against Indiana and their high - seven runs - came against NCAA Division III school Simpson.
Pitching-wise, the Hawkeyes arms will strike out their fair share of hitters (9.3 Ks/9 innings - second best in the Big 10), but they also walks a lot of hitters (5.39 BBs/9 innings - third worst in the conference).
Still, at the end of the day this is Iowa. This is a remarkably similar situation to a year ago when the Illini, coming into this very same weekend, were ranked No. 22 in the country. And Iowa traveled over to Champaign and took the series by not allowing the Illini more than five runs in their two losses.