Aggressive base running supplements offense for Illini baseball

Will Krug wants to score for Illinois baseball every game.

With two outs in the third inning, the Illini baserunner’s eyes lock onto George Mason’s senior pitcher. He’s studied this pitcher’s delivery, and the tag out from two innings earlier reminds him he needs a bigger lead. He inches farther off first base this time but is careful not to give himself up by leaning. He waits for the pitch he wants, and when it comes, he jumps into a dash toward second.

Even after losing two of three on the weekend, including a shutout to George Mason last Friday, the steal strategy is the same for the young Illinois batters. Despite losing veterans in the offseason, Associate Head Coach Eric Snider trusts his players to make the call; if they think they can steal, they have the green light.

“The kids have an option to steal base based on their own reads and jumps with the catcher throwing,” Snider said. “You have four pitches or less to make your move, coach will shut you down when he doesn’t want you to run.”

Reaching base is only the first part of the job for the offense. Once batters are on, their speed becomes their greatest scoring weapon. For Krug, what he doesn’t learn about the pitchers and catchers in the scouting report is picked up by on-field observations. He learns how much leniency each pitcher-catcher matchup lends him, and he decides how to act based on what he sees — evidence by his five stolen bases on seven attempts this season.

“The one thing you can bring every day is speed,” Snider said. “You can’t swing the bat every day, some days you just don’t pitch, but speed’s one thing that never stops.”

Stealing the bases correlated favorably to winning for Illinois over the last three years. In both 2011 and 2013, the Illini finished with above 30 wins, positive records in the Big Ten and NCAA regional appearances. They also records high stolen base totals in these years with 98 and 115, respectively. Meanwhile, Illinois fell short of regionals in 2012 with 28 wins, a losing conference record and a low stolen bases total of 78.

This correlation, however, doesn’t always hold true outside of this three-year span. In 2009, Illinois posted one of its best records in the last five years at 34-20 (16-8 Big Ten). And yet, 2009’s 79 total stolen bases mark was nearly identical to 2012’s poor outing, which argues there is something more to the art of base stealing.

“It gets in pitchers’ heads when baserunners are moving on the bases,” Krug said. “When they’re stealing on them, it kind of diverts attention away from the batter and to the baserunner.”

In last season’s second round loss to No. 2 Vanderbilt at regionals, Snider said Illinois used its speed on the bases to get to Tyler Beede, who was a Second Team All-American pitcher for the Commodores. In Beede’s four innings, the Illini’s consistent base pressure forced his pitches to change from high to low in the strike zone, which Snider said are much easier to hit and usually result from a pitcher’s divided attention. Illinois had just stolen one base by the time Beede was relieved, but his mental divide allowed the Illini bats to swing their way to a 4-2 lead.

Illinois’ No. 1 starting pitcher Kevin Duchene said his strategy for staying focused on the mound requires a tremendous trust in the catcher and the defense — and even he admitted Krug’s base running “antics” have gotten the best of him a few times in practice.

“If a pitcher does not control the running game, we’re going to run all over him,” Snider said.

When Krug jumps from his base and goes for the steal, he knows he won’t get it on every attempt. The redemption he seized Friday against George Mason proved that sliding safely to second doesn’t always guarantee a run, as the game ended in a shutout. But in a game where the common philosophy is to bring in runs, he knows smart, aggressive base running will always correlate with his goal every game.

“Legs help score runs,” Snider said. “It’s that simple.”

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