Michalak thriving in first season with Illini


By Gavin Good, Staff writer

When Illinois baseball head coach Dan Hartleb was looking for players to shore up his roster after an under-achieving 2017 season, one player from Des Moines Area Community College in Des Moines, Iowa, caught his attention.

Hartleb had been disappointed with the production at third base, and he believed Michael Michalak, a then-sophomore at Des Moines who was hitting .366 and drove in 46 runs, was a potential answer.

However, months later, Hartleb knows Michalak was actually not the answer at third base. Instead, the Rochester, Minnesota, native has carved out a different role for the Illini: designated hitter.

Michalak is hitting .305 for a 26-14 Illinois squad that has already bested its win total from last season. He’s got 12 RBI’s, with only 16 strikeouts this season, and he has quickly emerged as a reliable figure within the team.

His path to becoming one of Illinois’ most productive hitters was an unlikely one.

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As a talented wide receiver in high school, Michalak’s attention was divided between multiple sports. He didn’t have a lot of recruiting interest when he graduated, but he knew he wanted to play baseball at the Division I level and decided to do what he could to get noticed.

“It was probably one of the best decisions I’ve ever made,” Michalak said. “I’ve gotten a lot better; really improved my game and matured through the game.”

Even as he was posting strong numbers at Des Moines, a community college powerhouse, he had to wait a long time before Hartleb and the Illini came calling. In fact, he was not sure any Division I programs would want him until the end of his second season

“When the looks weren’t really there, I just told myself to keep working and keep grinding,” Michalak said. “That’s what the JUCO mentality is all about. My dad really helped me with that, too, helping me stay even-keeled and having the right mindset. Really just taking it day-by-day, working hard and keeping your head down.”

Hartleb made the trip to see Michalak play and his interest grew from there, until he eventually offered Michalak a spot on the team.

“We thought Michael was a good athlete and we had concerns at third base,” Hartleb said. “It was going to be a little bit of an open tryout there with some of the guys we had.”

When the season began, however, a different junior college transfer impressed the Illinois coaching staff. Hartleb gave Grant Van Scoy, a transfer from Southeast Community College in Beatrice, Nebraska, the starting job at third.

Michalak was sent to the bench.

He didn’t stay there for long, as he quickly became the first choice at designated hitter. Fast forward and he’s started 36 of Illinois’ 38 games, mostly at the DH slot — the only exception being when he filled in at first base for an injured Bren Spillane.

The junior’s versatility as an athlete and position player has helped him get onto the field consistently despite Hartleb’s preference for Van Scoy at third.

Though Michalak may shrug off the move from a 250-student campus made up of only student-athletes to the 40,000-plus enrolled at Illinois, the switch has been quite the change. 

Michalak said he appreciates the lively campus environment and the multitude of resources the university has to offer.

In terms of how the competition has improved since coming from Des Moines, Michalak said the biggest difference is with pitching.

“The velocities are about the same, it’s just that they can spot up what they want when they want,” Michalak said. “You’ve got to be ready for what you’re going to get and not what you want. It makes you more disciplined that way. I knew it was going to be coming that way because you can get away with some things in junior college, but here pitchers make less mistakes. You’ve got to make sure you’re ready for the mistakes they make.”

At Des Moines, he was always one step ahead of the opposing pitcher. 

“If you’re up 2-0 in the count, I’d say you were expecting a meaty, meaty fastball just about every time,” Michalak said. “You were licking your chops just trying to get your best hack off. Here, they’ll make you earn it.”

To fill that DH role, Michalak has had to exemplify the demands of the coaching staff: Being reliable to make solid contact and get on base.

Michalak always has to be reminded there is no defensive redemption for a bad at-bat, no chance to make an impressive play in the field or shake it off by simply doing something else.

It’s only Michalak and the bat. 

“In baseball, you have a bad at-bat every once in awhile, but you can’t just go out in the field and say, ‘Hey, let’s make a really nice play and make up for it,’” Michalak said. “You’ve just got to come back to the dugout and think about your at-bat.”

He tries to erase the bad at-bats from his memory and aims to build off the positive ones. Michalak does not dwell on anything, knowing there are only a limited amount of chances to impact the game.

And to date, Hartleb thinks the junior has done that.

“The one thing I really like is the fact that he doesn’t strike out a lot; he puts the ball in play,” Hartleb said. “There have been several times this year where he’s just put the ball in play and gotten RBIs or made something happen. I’ve been pleased with what he’s done and I know he’ll continue to work and get better and better.”

As the postseason approaches, and Illinois tries to cement its spot in the field of 64 teams for the third time in the last three years, Michalak is certain of his role.

Be a tough out, find the right pitches and get on base any way possible.

He says it’s that simple.


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