Arms Aplenty For Illini Baseball Team
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We now interrupt this regularly scheduled Fighting Illini football programming to bring you...baseball!
The die-hard seamheads amongst us have, by now, probably developed the shakes knowing that World Series is over and baseball isn't coming back for four months. But we can beat these blues with some Orange and Blue baseball news!
Head Coach Dan Hartleb and his Diamond Illini wrapped up their Fall season with some scrimmage action last night. No fans allowed, but former Illini lefty Dave Seifert, now the Director of College Scouting for Prep Baseball Report & D1baseball.com, was in attendance and offered some thoughts on what he saw in two trips to campus this week!
Let's start with the area where the Illini were strongest last year -- on the mound! The fact that MLB conducted a 5-round draft in June AND the NCAA granted an extra year of eligibility allowed us diamond die-hards to dream on getting the front end of the rotation -- Sr. RHP Ty Weber -- and the back-end of the bullpen -- Sr. RHP Garrett Acton -- back for another go-round.
Weber was nothing short of brilliant in the early going of 2020, including a head-to-head start against Texas A&M's Asa Lacy -- the eventual No. 4 pick in the draft by the Royals. Weber outdueled Lacy for a 1-0 victory as he surrendered just 3 hits over 6.2 innings of work. When Covid19 came calling after 4 weekends of play, Weber was among the most talked-about arms in the country as he pitched to a 2-0 record with a 1.31 ERA in 20.2 innings. He wasn't overpowering, he wasn't flashy, but he just kept coming at you with strikes and a never-back-down attitude.
Acton was another weapon for Hartleb and first-year pitching coach Mark Allen. Here's a remarkable stat: In two years in an Illini uniform, the Parkland College transfer was part of 44 victories. Acton closed out 24 of those 44 wins (57%) with a save. He led the nation in saves as a junior with 19 in 2019 and was tied for the national lead again in 2020 with six more for an Illini career record of 25 saves.
Neither was selected in the five-round draft, leading to hopes that both might be back. Alas, the free agency frenzy undertaken by some teams in a money-saving move proved too tempting for both. Weber signed with San Francisco while Acton signed with Oakland. The Illini loss was the Bay Area's gain.
So what's left in the pantry for Hartleb and Allen to shop from? Plenty, according to Seifert. Leading the way was JUCO transfer Andrew Hoffman, who was 5-0 with a 2.08 ERA and just shy of 2 strikeouts PER INNING for John A. Logan when things shut down. Here's a look at Hoffman from his summer stint in the Northwoods League.
Hoffman was up to 93 in his 1 inning of work on Thursday night and backed it up with the hard slider -- typically in the low 80s -- that you see in the video above. Hoffman is no average JUCO transfer. Before even setting foot on campus, he was ranked as the #140 draft prospect in the country by Baseball America -- the equivalent of projecting him as a 4th-round pick come June.
"He's a legitimate Friday night guy in the Big 10," Seifert said.
From there, things could change depending on what the season looks like. There are rumors of perhaps the Big 10 playing 4-game sets to off-set the inability to travel South early in the year as is tradition.
Among the potential other starters were returnee Aidan Maldonado, who's been up to 96 mph and enjoyed a solid summer in the best collegiate league in the country -- the Cape Cod League. On the Cape, Maldonado was third in the league in strikeouts per 9 innings at 15.6 and Seifert's crew at D1baseball.com ranked him as the #4 MLB Draft prospect in the Big 10 earlier this year.
Seifert also saw good things out of returnee Ty Rybarczyk in his Tuesday stint. See below:
Ty Rybarczyk impressive 1st inning with 90 91 FB, above avg 75 77 CB and avg 83 mph CH. Great feel for zone and add/subtract spin. pic.twitter.com/mFKGd406UJ— David Seifert (@DSeifertD1PBR) October 24, 2020
"He's a 5-foot-9 righty, but he's aggressive and super-competitive," Seifert said. "With his stuff, I'm not sure if it would be better if he starts or maybe, if they go to 4-game sets, Dan can use him as a high-leverage reliever and get to use him maybe 2-3 times a week."
The final piece of the puzzle as far as the frontline might be big freshman Jack Crowder. One look at Crowder brings to mind visions of Mark Fidrych -- look it up young'uns -- and Roger Clemens having a son. Here's a look at what PBR founder Sean Duncan had to say about Crowder prior to the draft in June.
Having seen Crowder from the opposite dugout I can tell you that it's real. Not many guys who you can hear the sizzle on their fastball from the other dugout and the ball hitting the mitt sounds like a firecracker.
Seifert also saw starter potential from RHP Ryan Kutt, who should be fully healthy now that he's nearly 2 years post-Tommy John surgery. And don't overlook LHP Cole Kirschseiper, who was nearly as brilliant as Weber on the mound as a freshman. The soft-tossing lefty posted victories over West Virginia, No. 23 Oklahoma State and Elon to finish his shortened season 3-0 with a 1.35 ERA.
What does that mean for the Illini? Well, for one, Hartleb and Allen have options.
"Dan and his coaches have always done a nice job of piecing their pitching together," Seifert said. "They have 10-12 really good options and I don't have any doubt they'll do the same here."
With only so many starting spots to go around, the bullpen will undoubtedly be strengthened. Seifert mentioned LHPs Ryan O'Hara and Nathan Lavender as key pieces from the left side. Lavender has been up to 94 mph through his first 2 years in Orange and Blue, but Seifert is hoping to see continued development and refinement.
As for O'Hara, who was a late add to the 2019 class, Seifert sees potential: "He was 88-90 with an average slider, but needs a third pitch."
Uncommitted 2019 LHP Ryan O’Hara (@GBS_Baseball) sitting 84-87 w/ run, T89 twice. Pitches with tempo and stern demeanor w/ deception in delivery, athletic. Spun a tight SL at 75-79 all day for K’s, feel for it, can bury. 6IP, 3H, 0R, 6K, 2BB. A lot to like. @PBR_Uncommitted pic.twitter.com/zAL6wFm555— adam panayotovich (@adam_pano) May 4, 2019
On the right-hand side, the diminutive Grant Leader returns with his 93 mph heater and could be a nice late-inning option although the fireballer was held out of the scrimmages this week. Joining him as late options could be fellow righties Andrew Pogue and Riley Gowens.
PLUS: Illinois Scout Blog updated. Power arms were on display Monday afternoon. @riley_gowens (@baseballLVille) sat 92-93, T94 in the 1st. @steesanchez34 (@MundyBaseball) 87-88, T90. Full reports & video >> https://t.co/6x2zFUKbxh pic.twitter.com/g5274YH42h— PBR Illinois (@PBRIllinois) May 3, 2018
Pogue, according to Seifert, was 88-90 with a breaking ball that "flashed above-average at times," while Gowens was up to 91 mph, but needs to sharpen his slider and curveball.
"The slider was a little flat," Seifert said. "But he's got a good body and looks the part."
As I told El Jefe, Robert, I don't want to overwhelm you folks with too much baseball. So let's cut it here. Check back next week for Seifert's thoughts on the position players.
Now, let's beat Purdon't (credit to Bill Liesse...yes I'm sure others have used it too, but Bill was the man) and continue our countdown to hoops season!!!