Watson hopes to follow brother to MLB draft

Illinois+pitcher+Cyrillo+Watson+delivers+the+pitch+during+the+exhibition+game+against+Indiana+State+at+Illinois+Field+on+Saturday%2C+Sept.+22%2C+2018.+The+Illini+tied+5-5.

The Daily Illini File Photo

Illinois pitcher Cyrillo Watson delivers the pitch during the exhibition game against Indiana State at Illinois Field on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018. The Illini tied 5-5.

By Rich Eberwein, Staff Writer

Cyrillo and Xavier Watson grew up in the Milwaukee area with parents Jesse and Tiffany, and both have played for the Illinois baseball team in recent years. The Watsons began their careers very early, as Xavier recalls picking up a baseball for the first time when he was just two years old at Cyrillo’s practice. It wasn’t until their time at South Milwaukee High School, however, that the Watsons started heavily focusing on baseball.

Cyrillo, who is three years older than Xavier, pitched three seasons for the Illini and was selected by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 23rd round of the 2019 First-Year Player Draft. He made eight appearances in the Arizona Fall League last year and gave up only one run while collecting eight strikeouts.

Xavier is currently a freshman attending Illinois and made one start for coach Dan Hartleb before the campaign prematurely concluded. Hartleb sees the brothers as excellent young ballplayers and believes Xavier can take the next step as Cyrillo did.

Taking advantage of the vast amount of downtime in recent weeks, the Watson brothers are keeping each other’s baseball skills sharp in the age of stay at home orders.

“It’s definitely a tragedy to the sports community,” Xavier said of the brief season. “But at the same time, I like to look at things from the positive side. This is another opportunity for our whole team to get better and work on the little things so when we come out next fall or next season, we’re better than we were this year.”

    Subscribe to our sports newsletter!

    With the pandemic still raging, Xavier and Cyrillo are acting as teammates at home, hitting ground balls to each other, using their basement weight set and even constructing a batting cage in the backyard with their dad.

    “I’m trying to keep my mind occupied,” said Cyrillo. “Whether it be working on pitching mechanics or hitting ground balls to my brother, I’m just try to keep my mind occupied and looking forward to the season that will hopefully come is all I can do.”

    When looking back on his time at Illinois, Cyrillo thinks about the camaraderie he shared with his teammates and cites opening day as his favorite time of the year. Cyrillo was converted to a pitcher when he got to Illinois, rarely taking the mound in high school and travel ball. Though pitching was relatively new to him just three years before he got drafted, Cyrillo took the step and excelled his junior year with a 3.65 ERA in 69 innings. He chose Illinois because he believes it had everything to give him opportunities on and off the field.

    Xavier’s exposure to Illinois began when he was in seventh grade, as that year was when he first set foot on campus while visiting with Cyrillo. With the familiar home-like atmosphere and knowledge of the baseball coaches and program, Xavier’s decision to attend Illinois was all but set in stone before he was even in high school. Around this time in middle school, Xavier played several sports including lacrosse, basketball, flag football and soccer, but decided to pursue baseball seriously when he got to high school.

    “A huge aspect of choosing baseball was watching my brother,” said Xavier. “Seeing him as a senior in high school at the time and going off to play Division 1 baseball, I kind of thought that I had a chance to do what he’s doing.”

    This decision paid off as Xavier was ranked the No. 1 shortstop in Wisconsin by Prep Baseball Report in 2019 and made his way to the Illinois Baseball team in 2020. In addition to Cyrillo, Xavier says his main baseball influences were his dad, his travel ball coach and Cyrillo’s teammate of five years, Gavin Lux. Lux is also a middle infielder in the Dodger organization, who was drafted out of high school in 2016, stampeded through the Minor Leagues and made his major league debut last September.

    Some favorite memories the Watsons have are running sandlot type games at the park they grew up across the street from, and playing shortstop and second at the same time during a Spring League game.

    Both men eagerly await their return to the diamond from their Wisconsin home.

    “It’s really awesome watching Xavier take the same type of path as me while creating his own name for himself as well, being the type of fielder and hitter he is,” said Cyrillo.  I’m happy where things are at, where me and my brother are.  I hope he enjoys every moment of it.”

    @ebs_rich

    [email protected]