Duchene has become staff leader for Illini baseball

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By Nicholas Fortin

Editor’s note: The Daily Illini sports desk sits down Sunday nights and decides which Illinois athlete or coach is our Illini of the Week. Athletes and coaches are evaluated by individual performance and contribution to team success.

In a little over a year, Kevin Duchene has become the man.

With some help from coaches and players alike, Duchene has gone from the wild freshman to a team leader, the Friday starter and the most consistent pitcher on the Illinois baseball team.

Duchene threw a three-hit complete game shutout Friday in the Illini’s 6-0 win over the then No. 23 Gators in Florida. On 100 pitches, Duchene recorded six strikeouts, and was able to put away a Florida team that had averaged six runs per game until that point.

“Kevin did what Kevin does,” pitching coach Drew Dickinson said. “I fully expect him to do that all the time. He’s that good. He has that kind of make up, that kind of stuff.”

Duchene’s pitching was good enough to garner Big Ten Pitcher of the Week as well as admiration from his teammates.

“He was lights out, and he’s been that way the past year and a half that I’ve played with him,” junior pitcher John Kravetz said. “It wasn’t too surprising, but it was pretty awesome to watch from the dugout.”

Despite his weekend success, Duchene was humble when talking about his performance. After crediting his teammates for their contributions to the victory, Duchene said he thought he had pretty good control of his fastball early on, which resulted in a lot of quick outs early on and eventually allowed him to pick up strikeouts later in the game.

“It’s real easy because I’m a pitcher that goes out there and throws to contact, and that’s exactly what I did,” Duchene said. “I kept the pitch count low. The defense was unbelievable. When you’re able to go out there and have your team score runs in front of you, it just makes pitching that much easier.”

Not long ago, Duchene wasn’t the No. 1 guy. But with the help of former Illini ace Kevin Johnson, Duchene was able to grow as both a pitcher and a leader into his current role.

For as long as he can remember, Duchene has played baseball. He picked up tee-ball around 5 or 6-years-old and quickly realized he belonged on the mound.

“I was a god-awful hitter,” Duchene said. “I could play first base a little bit, but I was just pretty decent at pitching.”

Tee-ball turned into baseball, and before he knew it, colleges, including Illinois, were recruiting him.

When Duchene came down for his official visit with the Illini, he met Johnson, who would eventually become his mentor on the team.

Duchene decided on Illinois, and almost immediately his friendship with Johnson began.

“He really carried himself to the expectations of what your Friday guy is supposed to be,” Duchene said. “He was a great leader last year. It didn’t matter if he was talking to the pitchers, and we had a lot of young pitchers last year or any of the freshmen for that matter. He was somebody that everybody rallied behind.”

Johnson said that on top of being a great pitcher, Duchene was an eager learner who valued what Johnson said.

“I knew he was going to be somebody who would make immediate impact as a weekend starter just because of what I had heard about him,” Johnson said. “We had a good friendship as far as that goes and he was really willing to learn, which I can appreciate. Everything that I would teach him I could see that he was really taking it to heart and really doing his best to basically do what I told him.”

Johnson tried to teach Duchene all of the things that had tripped him up early on in his career. The biggest thing he told the freshman was that the speed of the game would increase tremendously. Instead of one player on a team being good enough to play in college, they all would be.

“That was the biggest thing from my freshman year when you get in a bind to just kind of take a deep breath and slow everything down because that’s when things can kind of get out of control,” Johnson said. “And I thought he did that real well.”

Duchene began last year as the Saturday starter behind Johnson, but he struggled early. In Duchene’s words: “I did pretty mediocre.”

Dickinson moved him to the bullpen, which Duchene didn’t like. He used its motivation along with Johnson’s advice to push through the struggles and find his rhythm again.

“I knew that I had to get it done or I wasn’t going to be able to enjoy starting again,” Duchene said. “It all just kind of clicked and I started throwing well.”

During his stint in the bullpen, Duchene said Johnson would tell him things like “you’re just as good as everybody else” and “you can’t beat yourself.” Johnson also taught him to not over-think things in the games.

Johnson sat out toward the end of the season with an injury that would lead to Tommy John’s surgery after the year. Duchene was able to replace Johnson as the Friday starter late last season and has yet to relinquish that title. He was also able to compile nine wins in his freshman year, one more than Kravetz had in his freshman year the year before, giving Duchene the school record of most wins by an Illinois freshman.

This year has been different for Duchene. Following Johnson’s graduation, he has taken on the full-time role of No. 1 starter in addition to serving as a team leader.

Not only does Duchene have 16 strikeouts in three starts, but also his 22 1/3 innings pitched lead the Big Ten.

“He’s proven himself as a competitor on the mound,” Johnson said. “As the leader of the staff, how you play is almost going to show your leadership more than what you can say. I always say lead by example. Pitching well, doing what he’s been doing is going to be something that people will take into account. Even if he doesn’t say anything, people will be like ‘Duchene’s doing this’ or ‘What’s Duchene doing? I want to do what he’s doing. He’s got it figured out.’”

After the Illini started the season 2-4, Duchene took it upon himself to step up both on and off the field and motivate his team. Now the Illini are on a four-game winning streak and Duchene is coming off an impressive individual performance.

“I give my team everything I have every single time I go out there,” Duchene said. “Leading by example on the mound is something I take pride in, so hopefully it’s rubbed off on some of these guys, too.”

“Kid just knows how to pitch,” Dickinson said.

“He knows what it takes to be a No. 1 starter,” he added. “A No. 1 starter isn’t a guy that goes out and gives you a chance to win. He wins, and he starts that weekend off right.”

Nicholas can be reached at [email protected] and @IlliniSportsGuy.