Illinois baseball will go as far as its pitching takes it

By Alex Roux

In baseball, it’s hard to beat good pitching.

Last month, Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka agreed to a seven-year, $155 million contract with the New York Yankees. The Yankees will pay him more than $22 million a year to play once every five games.

Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw’s new contract is even more lucrative. Seven years, $215 million. It’s the most money any team has paid any pitcher, ever.

You get the idea. Pitching is at a premium in baseball, and teams value their pitchers for good reason. A solid rotation can mask the woes of an offensively challenged team, much like a good defense can in football.

Pitching is why Illini fans can be reasonably optimistic about the upcoming Illinois baseball season, despite Dan Hartleb’s squad losing considerable offensive punch to graduation and the MLB draft. Most of last season’s rotation that boasted a postseason ERA of 3.76 returns in 2014, led by No. 1 starter Kevin Duchene. The sophomore lefty led the team in ERA, wins and strikeouts last season. He’ll be followed in the rotation by John Kravetz and Drasen Johnson, who both posted impressive numbers in 2013.

Hartleb himself admitted that this year’s team comes with “a lot of question marks.” You can’t blame him for wondering where the runs will come from with this year’s lineup. The Parr brothers are gone, as is Thomas Lindauer. The Illini will attempt to replace the offensive production from last year that was lost in the turnover, mainly by plugging in younger and more inexperienced players to fill the holes. If the offense is down, as expected, Hartleb will have to rely on his pitching staff to guide the team through this year’s daunting schedule if he hopes to reach his third NCAA tournament in four years.

If you’re like me, you may have forgotten what it’s like to watch good baseball on a regular basis. I’m a Cubs fan, and I’ll quote former Cub Carlos Zambrano to describe the current status of my favorite team:

“We stinks.”

White Sox fans, you’re in the same boat. Just so you know how we feel Cardinals fans, for the moment try to pretend that your team is also terrible. You know, just like you pretend that it’s acceptable to cheer for a team from Missouri.

Okay, now you’re with me. I’m starved for success on the diamond. I just want to root for a competent baseball team more than twice a decade. So I think this year I’ll shift the majority of my baseball enthusiasm from the Majors to the Illini.

So let’s go, Mr. Duchene. Another 9-1 season from you sure would bode well for our NCAA tournament hopes.

Mr. Kravetz, keep improving from year to year. You lowered your ERA and increased your strikeouts from your freshman to sophomore year, so the numbers say your junior season should be your best one yet.

And Mr. Johnson, I know you’re moving from the bullpen to the starting rotation this year, and that can be a big adjustment. But if you could come anywhere close to the 3.07 ERA you posted in 20 relief appearances last year, it’s hard to imagine you won’t win a lot of games.

Hartleb thinks his rotation is, on paper, the best he’s had at Illinois. We’ll have to wait and see if it translates onto the field. The Illini open the season this weekend at Georgia State.

Time to hitch our wagons to the Illini pitching staff and go along for the ride.

Alex is a sophomore in AHS. He can be reached at [email protected] and @aroux94.