Youth, strong pitchers decorate renovated Illini baseball team

Illinois baseball needed renovations after last season ended.

Shortly after the team’s postseason run to the NCAA Nashville Regional, its starting lineup lost its entire outfield and the left half of its infield. Center fielder Justin Parr, left fielder Jordan Parr and shortstop Thomas Lindauer were all drafted and have accepted contracts with major league teams, while right fielder Davis Hendrickson and third baseman Brandon Hohl both graduated. The Illini also lost two pitchers — four-year starter Kevin Johnson and closer Bryan Roberts. Johnson, who holds the school record for career innings pitched (334), was drafted after missing the last month of his senior season with a forearm strain. Meanwhile, Roberts graduated with 17 career saves, his last coming against Georgia Tech in the first round of the Nashville Regional.

But making the necessary changes to the lineup hasn’t been just about who head coach Dan Hartleb can find as replacements. It’s about which of his young and developing players is best suited for the job.

“It’s going to be an interesting time for us because we have a lot of youth, which I like from the standpoint that I think we’re very talented,” Hartleb said. 

“I wish I could sit here and tell you these are the nine guys that are going to play, but I think we have 12, 13, 14 guys that are capable of playing and the identity of the offense is going to be determined by which ones of those step up and take the starting position.” 

Arguably the strongest aspect for the Illini this season is its pitching staff, which will return all three pitchers from its postseason rotation. Sophomore Kevin Duchene, who pitched at the No. 1 spot in his last six starts, will resume his role on Friday nights after breaking the Illinois school record for wins by a freshman (nine) last season.  

Following Duchene in the rotation and resuming his role as well is junior John Kravetz, who previously held the school record for most wins as a freshman (8) in 2012. The change comes at the No. 3 spot, where redshirt junior Drasen Johnson assumed the role of sophomore Ryan Castellanos, who started at No. 3 in the postseason; although, both Hartleb and Kravetz alluded to the possibility changes to the rotation through the season.

“Especially with the staff being as good as it is, you have to either perform or someone else will,” Kravetz said. “Everyone has to have a chip on their shoulder and everyone has something to prove each time they’re on the mound.”

The Illini dropped their ERA from 4.77 in 2012 to 3.76 last year, the team’s lowest ERA in 37 years. This mark was complemented by a strikeout-to-walk ratio of nearly two-to-one (316 strikeouts to 162 walks).

The Illini will look to senior Ronnie Muck to fill the shoes of Roberts. Redshirt junior Reid Roper also has previous closing experience, though his customary position is second base.

“I feel really good about our pitching staff,” Hartleb said. “On paper, velocity-wise, command-wise, experience-wise, we’re better than we’ve ever been.”

Statistically, the Illini will return less than half of its offense from last season, which was ranked second in the Big Ten. The lost players accounted for 56 percent of the team’s hits (320 of 571), 56.8 percent of its runs (191 of 336), 59.3 percent of its total bases (467 of 787) and 84.4 percent of its home runs (27 of 32).

Junior first baseman David Kerian returns as Illinois’ biggest slugger after batting .313, with 39 RBIs and an on-base percentage of .390 in 2013. He also contributed one of the five home runs recorded by returning players. 

Roper will contribute offensively as well after a season in which he hit .266 for 21 runs, 22 RBIs and three of the five home runs produced by the returning Illini. 

Total production from last year doesn’t tell the entire story, though. Center fielder Will Krug, who missed the second half of last season after suffering a broken arm, returns to the lineup.

Before being sidelined, Krug had scored 25 runs in 25 games while batting .305. He was also Illinois’ leadoff hitter in 22 straight games, during which the Illini posted a 17-5 record. 

Illinois has a schedule full of tough, NCAA tournament-caliber opponents. But after making the NCAA regionals twice in the last three years, Hartleb’s biggest challenge this season will be finding which players give the renovated squad of 2014 its best chance to make a return appearance.

“There’s a lot of question marks and it’s going to be a little bit of experimenting,” Hartleb said. “It’s a situation where we need to experiment to find how guys are going to handle situations, and at the same time do smart things, so we can win games.”

J.J. can be reached at [email protected] and @Wilsonable07.