Illini bullpen impresses in 2010s

Senior+Garrett+Acton+winds+up+for+a+pitch+during+competition.

Photo Courtesy of Fighting Illini Athletics

Senior Garrett Acton winds up for a pitch during competition.

By Rich Eberwein, Staff Writer

Illinois saw much success over the last decade with four NCAA tournament appearances, two Big Ten Championships and one Super Regional appearance in 2015. A major factor to the last decade’s fortune was a strong bullpen presence that spawned some of the best relievers in Illinois history.

Tyler Jay

After a decorated high school career at Lemont, Tyler Jay was named the No. 25 player in the class of 2012 by Prep Baseball Report. Jay made his debut for Illinois in 2013 in a game against Tennessee Tech. Although he gave up a walk-off home run, Jay’s luck seemed to be with him after that game. In his Freshman season, he held opponents to a .157 batting average, leading the Illinois pitching staff. Over the next two seasons, including 2015 when Illinois made their first Super Regional, Jay was Head Coach Dan Hartleb’s primary closer. During that time, he posted a school best season for ERA which was 1.08 in 2015.

In three seasons, Jay compiled 128.2 innings, a 1.68 ERA and 24 saves which was an Illinois record until Garrett Acton broke it in 2020. The southpaw was named to five All-American first teams in 2015 and was named the Big Ten Pitcher of the Year. Jay was taken sixth overall by the Minnesota Twins in the 2015 draft but has yet to work his way past AA.  Last year, the 26-year-old was traded to the Cincinnati Reds organization where he posted a 4.82 ERA in 28 innings.

Joey Gerber

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After Jay was drafted, Joey Gerber soon took the ball in the ninth inning for the Illini. The 2018 season is where it all came together for Gerber, who tied Jay’s single-season saves record with 14 while striking out 45 batters in 28.2 innings. Gerber also led the team in appearances (25), opponent batting average (.182), strikeouts per nine (14.13) and issued the fewest walks (14).

Gerber was grabbed in the eighth round of the 2018 draft by the Mariners and has shined in their minor league system ever since. Across 66 games, Gerber has 16 saves with a 2.42 ERA and was named to the Mariners 60-man 2020 roster. With a mid-90s fastball and closing experience, Gerber is likely to be the next former Illini to make it to the MLB. Currently, Tanner Roark of the Toronto Blue Jays is the only former Illinois baseball player currently playing for an MLB team.

Garrett Acton

The most recent arm to emerge from Illinois’ bullpen, Acton pitched just a season and a quarter for the Illini but made his presence known in that short period of time. In 39.2 innings, Acton punched out 42 batters to the tune of a 1.82 ERA while also breaking Jay’s all-time saves record with 25 total. Acton was the first Illini player in 20 years named to the Academic All-American First team.

A Lemont native, like predecessor Tyler Jay, Acton was a three-year letter winner in high school. After graduating from Lemont, Acton was drafted by the White Sox in the 35th round on the same day he and his teammates secured the state title. The 6-2 righty decided to pursue a business degree at Saint Louis University while also playing collegiate baseball. He made his way to Parkland College and committed to Illinois in the fall of his sophomore year. Following Gerber’s departure in 2018, Acton transferred during his junior year. Although he would likely have been drafted in 2020 had the coronavirus not shrunk the draft to five rounds, Acton still left Illinois, signing a free agent contract with the Oakland A’s this June.

@ebs_rich

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