Illinois baseball set to open 2018 season in Texas

By Gavin Good, Assistant sports editor

On Friday, the Illinois baseball team will have its fresh start.

A three-game road trip to Beaumont, Texas, is in the cards, and the Illini are faced with the task of snapping into game shape after a brief period of relatively mild February weather that has allowed the team to get some full outdoor practices in. It’s something the team has had to go without some years ahead of the season opener.

Head coach Dan Hartleb was confident at practice on Tuesday, however, that his team will not be affected by the quick transition from indoors to the diamond.

“It shouldn’t be a factor. If you make it an excuse, it’s an excuse, but we’ve been able to work on a lot of things,” Hartleb said. “The only thing we haven’t really done is seen balls in the air, and we’ve had two opportunities prior to today to get out for a short amount of time. It’s nice to be out here, but if we didn’t get out, it would not concern me.”

Since the Illini have been outside, they have been able to cover all areas of preparation — hitting, taking fly balls, ground balls and pitching — and practices have been pretty consistent in terms of workload.

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The pitchers have gradually had their workloads increased to about six 15-pitch innings per practice in order to get them ready for full game action. Hartleb stressed that he’s looking to see high energy, consistency and composure in these early season games.

He believes his squad is in considerably better shape this season, having developed for another year and with the only major departure being last year’s starting first baseman Pat McInerney, who was drafted by the Brewers in July.

The Illini pitching rotation is returning 83 percent of its total wins and 76 percent of its total innings from last year. Hartleb noted that the likely starters for the weekend will be sophomore Ty Weber on Friday against Lamar, then left-handed Eastern Illinois transfer Andy Fisher on Saturday against Texas Southern before sophomore Cyrillo Watson wraps up the weekend with the start on Sunday against Missouri State.

“Lamar is a team that has improved over the last two years,” Hartleb said. “They’ve started competing very well in their conference. I don’t know a lot about Texas Southern, but they’re a school that’s been outside and have probably scrimmaged a number of times. Then if you look at Missouri State, they’re a team that has been a perennial in the Super Regional, so it’s going to be a very tough weekend. We’re looking forward to it and we’re going to find out where we are in a lot of areas.”

The infield will see sophomores Michael Massey and Ben Troike back at their second base and shortstop positions, respectively, while Eastern Florida State College transfer Jeff Korte will likely start at catcher. Junior Doran Turchin is expected to get the start at left, while Preseason All-Big Ten third team and projected top ten round draft pick Zac Taylor will get the start at center field. All-Big Ten first team outfielder Jack Yalowitz will start in right field.

There has been speculation as to who will fill McInerney’s slot at first base, and Hartleb said that it will likely be redshirt junior Ryan Haff, with Ben Spillane potentially sliding over from third if he elects to play junior Grant Van Scoy at third instead of Spillane, who started 28 games in the outfield last season.

Hartleb feels confident that his team can significantly improve upon last season’s 23-28 (9-15 Big Ten Conference) record.

“Being a year older and a year better, I’m really excited about that,” Hartleb said. “This group of guys has worked extremely hard, they’ve had great attitudes. We’re solid in a lot of areas, and when you’re solid in multiple areas, you have a chance to be a good team.”

Come Friday evening, Hartleb will just be eager to get things underway.

“It’s what you work for all year,” Hartleb said. “It’s why you recruit, why guys go lift, they do things academically, they condition. I’m just looking forward to them going out and doing all the things they’ve worked so hard to accomplish.”


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