Consistency the theme as opener approaches for Illinois baseball

Brandon+Wikoff%2C+a+junior+infielder%2C+prepares+to+take+batting+practice+in+the+Irwin+Indoor+Practice+Facility+in+Champaign+on+Wednesday.+The+Illini+head+to+Florida+for+the+season+opener+against+Iowa+on+Friday.+Erica+Magda%0A

Brandon Wikoff, a junior infielder, prepares to take batting practice in the Irwin Indoor Practice Facility in Champaign on Wednesday. The Illini head to Florida for the season opener against Iowa on Friday. Erica Magda

By Wes Anderson

As Friday’s season-opening game against Iowa in the Big Ten/Big East challenge looms, the mantra of the Illinois baseball team is focused on an oft-elusive quality in the sport: consistency.

In their quest to improve upon last year’s 31-25 record and fourth-place finish in the Big Ten, among the Illini’s most pressing needs is replacing Kyle Hudson, the speedy two-sport athlete who was selected in the MLB First-Year Player Draft last summer.

The center fielder led the team in batting average, stolen bases, on base percentage and runs scored in 2008.

But the Illini have no shortage of young talent, and combined with a host of returning starters, expectations have risen in 2009.

“Offensively, we had some major losses, and we’ll see how the new guys fit in there. We do have a good nucleus coming back that I’m excited about, and I think we’ll be very consistent,” head coach Dan Hartleb said.

Pitchers & Catchers

The Illini battery remains virtually intact this season, returning six of seven starting pitchers and every catcher to the roster. The lone departure is starter Scott Shaw, who was drafted by the New York Mets in the 13th round of the MLB Draft.

Junior Kevin Manson returns on the heels of a breakout sophomore season, in which the 6-foot-7 right-hander went 8-2 in 13 appearances and 11 starts, leading the team in total innings pitched.

Though he predominantly relies on his fastball, Manson said he spent the offseason tweaking the other pitches in his repertoire.

“I’d like to incorporate my off-speed pitches a lot more this season,” Manson said.

“Changeups, curveballs, nothing new, just refine those and make them more consistent.”

Aaron Johnson is the presumptive starter at catcher after winning the job last April. The Canadian hit .306 with five home runs in 46 games last season.

Infielders

At 5-foot-8 with just two career home runs, shortstop Brandon Wikoff is hardly your typical No. 3 hitter.

On a team that values contact hitting, though, Wikoff has thrived. The junior hit .369 and led the team with 61 RBIs last season and looks to maintain his production this season following a selection to the preseason All-Big Ten team by Rivals.com.

“I know what my game is, I don’t try to do too much,” Wikoff said.

“I don’t try to hit balls out of the park, I just try to put balls in play. (When a) guy’s on third, I try to get him whichever way I can, whether it’s a sacrifice fly or a ground ball to the middle infield.”

Third baseman Dominic Altobelli will complete the left side of the infield, while second and first base are open to competition among a group of returners and incoming freshmen.

Outfielders

Replacing Hudson will be no easy task in 2009, but Hartleb said he would look to Joe Bonadonna, who split time between second base and center field last season, as an interim replacement for Hudson both in the outfield and as the leadoff man.

Last season, Bonadonna made several appearances at leadoff and stole 26 bases.

“First game, (Bonadonna) will be in center field,” Hartleb said.

“There’s some young guys we’re going to play, and as I see how those guys respond and how some other guys respond being on the bench, it’ll be a little bit of a work in progress.”

The Illini return Freshman All-American left fielder Casey McMurray in 2009, and returnees Nick Stockwell and Craig Lutes are expected to compete for the everyday job in right field after splitting starts last season.

Illinois Baseball 2009 Quick Facts

Last Season:

31-25 (16-15 Big Ten); Lost in 2nd round of Big Ten Tournament

Key Losses:

CF Kyle Hudson, RHP Scott Shaw (Both selected in 2008 MLB Draft)

Key Returners:

SS Brandon Wikoff, 2B/OF Joe Bonnadonna, RHP Kevin Manson

Season Opener:

Friday vs. Iowa at Big Ten/Big East Challenge in Clearwater, Fla.

Home Opener:

vs. Akron, Mar. 13