Illini baseball returns dominant pitching staff in 2014

As junior John Kravetz fields questions from reporters Monday afternoon, the theme is much different than past seasons: Illinois baseball’s strongest aspect is pitching.

This is the first time in the right-handed pitcher’s three years with the Illini that offense hasn’t been the main focus of the season. But after losing five position players in the offseason, including both Jordan and Justin Parr, the pressure has shifted toward the young pitching staff that returns all three starters from the 2013 postseason.

And Kravetz loves every second of it.

“We might be overconfident,” he said, grinning.

In the postseason, the starting rotation dropped its ERA from 4.77 to 3.76, which would be the lowest average since 1976 (3.43 ERA). On the year, it boasted a strikeout-to-walk ratio of almost two-to-one (316 strikeouts, 162 walks). But it isn’t last year’s statistics that make 2014 so inspiring; it’s how much talent returns to do it again.

The Illini will return all but two pitchers, losing both four-year starter Kevin Johnson and closer Bryan Roberts to graduation. They also gain depth of freshman Cody Sedlock, a right-handed long relief pitcher.

For the most part, the postseason rotation remains intact. Kevin Duchene, who played the last month of 2013 as the Friday night starter, reprises his role at No. 1 after leading the staff last season in ERA (2.79), strikeouts (68) and wins (9) — a mark that broke the school record (previously held by Kravetz) for most wins as a freshman. He also tallied a quality win in his last start against Georgia Tech in the NCAA Nashville Regional.

“I was put in big situations last year, which I felt like I got enough experience from to really thrive in pressure situations this year,” Duchene said.

Sliding back into his role at No. 2 is Kravetz, who pitched a team-high 90.2 innings last season.

As a Saturday night starter last year, he posted a 4-3 record with a 4.27 ERA and 52 strikeouts in the regular season. He chalked a fifth win over Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament, in which he threw a career-high seven strikeouts.

This year, however, redshirt junior Drasen Johnson will assume the role of No. 3 instead sophomore Ryan Castellanos after pitching 19 games in relief last season. Johnson, who had a team-leading 20 appearances last season, allowed the fewest hits on the team (30) and posted the team’s second-best ERA (3.07).

Without Roberts this year, the Illini will look to senior Ronnie Muck to move into the position of closer with second baseman Reid Roper as a secondary option. Muck has six career saves and posted the second-best ERA in the bullpen last season at 2.70.

“We feel like we can play with anyone in the nation,” Duchene said.

Illinois’ pitchers aren’t limiting themselves to just competing against other teams, though. Kravetz said with such depth on the team, pitchers are likely to be competing for spots in the rotations all season long.

Everyone has something to prove each time they’re on the mound,” he said. “You’ve got to perform or someone else will.”

But while power and depth on the mound aren’t in shortage this season, the Illini pitchers will face new challenges this season as the talk of the team.

“The biggest difference is just going to be our leadership role,” Duchene said. “We lost a lot of seniors, a lot of everyday starters, a lot of power in the middle of the lineup, so probably from an offensive perspective, scoring runs this year is going to be a little bit tougher.”

While head coach Dan Hartleb said he feels his pitching staff is as good as it’s ever been, he hasn’t altered much of his strategy approaching this season.

“The way I approach it with our guys is if we pitch well, score enough runs to win. If we have a bad day on the mound, score enough runs to win,” Hartleb said. “So you may have a strength, but I don’t think you throw all your eggs in one basket. I always want to be a complete team.”

The pitching depth gives Hartleb more freedom, though. He said having so many pitchers gives him the opportunity try rotations based on matchups. It also allows a starter to step back for a day or two if he struggles on the mound. Even with so many arms, though, Hartleb doesn’t see any of them as extras.

“We do have pitching depth, we do have a lot of pitchers,” Hartleb said. “But I think all of those pitchers have the ability to help us, and I hope every one of them is a factor.”

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