Baseball team eager to start ’07 season

By Jason Grodsky

While there may still be snow scattered on the ground all over campus, the Illinois baseball team is preparing to begin their 127th season on Friday.

Despite being stuck inside at the Irwin Indoor Practice Facility and unable to practice outside since Jan. 23, the Illini will take the field at Moore Field in Lafayette, La., on Friday night for the start of their first three games of the season against the Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns.

Even though the Illini haven’t had the opportunity to set foot on an actual field since fall, the Illini are confident that their veteran leadership will help them through their first few series of games.

“Everybody is anxious to get out of the indoor facility and start playing the games because it’s what these guys have worked so hard at preparing for,” head coach Dan Hartleb said. “This group knows what is expected of them and it’s just time to go out and play.”

Unlike last season when Illinois returned just nine letter winners and two position starters from the 2005 team that won the Big Ten Championship, the Illini open this season with all but two of their regular position players back. Only first baseman Dave Schultz and outfielder Trevor Huisinga graduated last year.

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With the loss of Schultz, the Illini have realigned a few of their position players to fill the hole left by last season’s slugger.

Fifth-year senior Mike Rohde will fill the void at first base after spending most of his career on the opposite side of the diamond, anchoring third base. Rohde started 52 games at third base and just three at first base last season, finishing second on the team with 48 runs, 38 RBIs and 14 doubles, and third in hits with 68 last season.

“It’s been exciting to learn a new position,” Rohde said. “There is a lot more to it than just standing there and catching the ball, but it’s not too different than third base because it’s still a corner but there are just little differences here and there.”

With Rohde likely moving across the diamond to first base, Illinois has a slew of options at third, including sophomores Dominic Altobelli, Joe Bonadonna and Nick Stockwell.

With the minor changes to the infield, the strength of the Illini lineup will come from behind the plate. Junior Lars Davis hit the most home runs of the returning Illini, five, and was tied for second on the team with 38 RBIs.

While Davis and Rohde will be looked at to provide some pop in the lineup, the Illini’s biggest asset will once again be their speed. The Illini were fifth in the Big Ten in steals last season with 87 and return five of their top six base swipers, including senior shortstop Shawn Roof, who led the Illini with 15 steals last year.

Roof was one of three Illini named to All-Big Ten Teams at the end of last season. Roof and junior second baseman Ryan Hastings were Third Team All-Big Ten and senior outfielder Ryan Snowden was a Second Team All-Big Ten selection after leading the Illini in hitting with a .342 average.

“We should be able to do some things from a speed standpoint and be able to run again this year, and while I don’t think we have anyone who will be a 30 home run guy, we should be more powerful this year,” Hartleb said.

Returning on the mound this season for the Illini will be seven pitchers who accounted for two-thirds of last season’s starts. Highlighting the starting pitchers are four sophomores, Tanner Roark, Ben Reeser, Scott Shaw and Aaron Martin, all of whom saw action on the mound as freshmen last season.

But with the loss of last year’s starters Matt Whitmore, Brian Blomquist and Jake Stewart, the young guns will have to step up into new roles in the rotation this year.

“I got a great opportunity last year along with a couple of the other young guys and we’re just looking to build off last season,” Reeser said. “We have a lot of young guys who will be looked at to step up and fill out roles on the mound. I believe we have the staff to do it and we should be able to go out there and exceed what we did last year.”

But while the Illini will be young in the starting rotation, their bullpen will be full of seasoned veterans who saw action last season.

Illinois returns its top two relief pitchers from a year ago in seniors Jake Toohey and Brian Long. Toohey stepped into the closer role at the end of April and picked up five saves for the Illini.

“The bullpen should be a strength for us again this year,” Hartleb said. “We’re going to watch some guys early on in the year so we don’t over-throw anybody, but as the season moves along we should be strong in the pen.”

With the group of ballplayers anxious to get back onto a real field, the Illini are hoping to get off to a good start and get a sense of where they stand in their development.

Illinois’ first opponent, Louisiana-Lafayette, has already gotten a jump start on their season. The Ragin’ Cajuns have played four games and stand a perfect 4-0 coming off a three-game sweep of Texas-San Antonio last weekend.

The Illini beat the Ragin’ Cajuns 14-12 last season in the two teams’ early-season meeting at the Baseball Express Collegiate Baseball Classic in San Antonio, Texas.

“As a team, we are more excited than ever to leave and go play our first games,” Rohde said. “The first weekend is the most exciting because you get all the butterflies out. Plus, we’re getting really sick of facing each other in practice everyday and just want to get down there and play a different team. Lafayette has a great atmosphere and great program there.”