Versatile lineup looks to replace departed sluggers, base thieves

By Jason Grodsky

With snow still on the ground and chilly winds gusting through central Illinois, it may be hard to believe that baseball season is getting under way. But for the Illinois baseball team it’s been a long wait to get out of the indoor practice facility and out onto a real diamond for the start of the season.

The Illini have been gearing up for their first trip of the year since the start of winter practices began in late January. This weekend, Illinois travels to Edinburg, Texas, to play in the Al Ogletree Classic. However, this year’s team will have a different look out on the field than the squads of recent years.

Gone is last year’s home run leader and Big Ten Player of the Year, Lars Davis. Gone is the team’s single-season stolen base record holder, Shawn Roof. Gone is the team’s leadoff and leading hitter for the past two seasons, Ryan Snowden.

But despite the big losses the team took in the offseason, Illinois returns four starters in the infield and outfield, along with three other lettermen from 2007. And this year’s team is one of the most versatile in Illinois history.

“I’m excited about the young guys we have, and we have a very athletic team,” head coach Dan Hartleb said. “We have a lot of guys who are versatile and can move around and play a lot of different places, but I don’t want to be bouncing guys around every day and hopefully guys will fit into the roles they’re put into.”

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Among the players who could see time at a variety of positions is fifth-year senior Ryan Hastings.

Hastings, who was second on the team in home runs, third in slugging percentage and fourth in both hits and total bases in 2007, has been the anchor of the Illini’s double-play tandem at second base the past three seasons but could find himself at any of the other three infield positions.

Coming off a year where he produced a career-best .332 average and added career highs in runs (38), home runs (6) and slugging percentage (.489), Hastings will likely move up in the batting order this season after spending much of the past two seasons in the sixth or seventh spot.

“(Ryan) is a guy who should fit well in the middle of the order, but more importantly he gives us experience and brings a great frame of mind to the field,” Hartleb said about the senior.

Hastings will battle junior infielder Joe Bonadonna for the job at second base after Bonadonna’s monster summer, in which he hit .318 and broke the team and league records for stolen bases, racking up a whopping 45 steals in 68 games while playing for the Duluth Huskies of the Northwoods League.

Bonadonna hopes his summer swiping bases in the Northwoods League will continue into this season for the Illini, which lost close to 65 percent of their stolen base production.

“Whatever I can do to get in the lineup and help the team is my goal,” Bonadonna said. “I really improved on a lot of things this summer, and hopefully I can continue playing consistent and be productive.”

Bonadonna and Hastings will be joined in the infield by sophomore Brandon Wikoff, who moves back to his natural position at shortstop after playing 54 games at third base for the Illini last season.

“I’ve always played shortstop and feel really comfortable there,” Wikoff said. “The transition back has been pretty easy, and it was easy to get used to it again.”

At the corner infield positions junior Dominic Altobelli is the top returning candidate to play third base and sophomore Mike Giller and sophomore Matt Dittman will battle for the team’s first base position.

The team’s outfield is nearly set in stone with junior center fielder Kyle Hudson returning and outfielders Daniel Webb, Nick Stockwell and Craig Lutes likely to split time in the corner outfield spots with the odd man out filling the team’s designated hitter role.

But Coach Hartleb’s biggest concern won’t be filling the void in the outfield left by Snowden, but in his spot in the lineup at the top. In his two seasons at the top of the lineup, Snowden hit for a .341 career average with 41 doubles.

With Illinois starting play this weekend, Hartleb hopes the answers to his early-season questions will be answered soon.

“If you look back at every year you always have some losses to the lineup and you’re always going to have to find guys who are going to go out and be productive but that’s something you won’t find until you start playing,” Hartleb said. “We just really need to go out and play to see who’s going to fill out the team and step into those roles.”