Hartleb, Illinois baseball set sights high at media day

By Peter Bailey-Wells

Dan Hartleb’s voice was calm, his gaze fixed and his body still, but his hands spun his wedding ring around and around.

Head coach Hartleb’s behavior established a theme for Illinois baseball’s media day Monday: slightly nervous, but confident about the upcoming season.

“They’re very, very talented and very, very confident, and this year they’re experienced,” Hartleb said of his players. “But you have to do more physical things than verbal things.”

Hartleb is entering his 10th year at the helm of the Illini, and feels this year’s pitching staff is the strongest he has had.

The Illini return seven of eight pitchers who threw for more than 25 innings last season from a team that finished 32-21 (17-7 Big Ten) and third in the conference. This year’s staff includes junior closer Tyler Jay, who was named to multiple preseason All-American lists. Jay recorded 10 saves and posted a 1.94 ERA last season.

Jay claimed he wasn’t aware of his preseason accolades, but said his confidence is at an all-time high after playing with USA Baseball Collegiate National Team over the summer.

“He shortens the game by two innings on any given day,” junior starting pitcher Kevin Duchene said. “If you can finish seven, you know you have Tyler coming in.”

Hartleb said despite Jay’s success out of the bullpen, they discussed moving him into the rotation, but decided against it.

Duchene’s 1.80 ERA was the best on the staff last season. He finished the season 4-1. With the return of seniors Drasen Johnson (5-7, 2.91 ERA), John Kravetz (6-1, 3.00) and Rob McDonnell (4-0, 3.67), the Illini sport at least four starters who won four games last season. 

Junior catcher Jason Goldstein is also back, after starting 47 games behind home plate last season on his way to a second-team All-Big Ten selection. In his first two seasons in Champaign, Goldstein started 89 games at catcher. 

“He’s good with all of our pitchers,” Jay said. “He knows what he wants to do with certain guys, and I trust him fully.”

In the field, the Illini return eight starters, including senior second baseman Reid Roper and senior outfielder Will Krug, who both started every game last season. Krug led the team in stolen bases, with 20, and was first on the team in runs scored, with 41. He was selected second-team All-Big Ten.

The team began practice last week and, according to Krug, the team’s veteran presence got the Illini off on the right foot. Hartleb said the team started with bunt defense drills, and although that often causes problems, this year’s team was sharp.

Hartleb added that the team’s small freshman class (five) would probably have more than one redshirt.

“We rarely redshirt guys,” Hartleb said. “But if you look at the number of returning players we have, I just don’t want to waste a year on maybe 20 at-bats or 10 innings on the mound.”

Jay revealed the team’s mix of nerves and confidence when asked about the team’s prospects.

“We have College World Series potential,” he said. “We think we’re one of the best, if not the best, in the Big Ten and that’s going to be our attitude throughout the whole year.”

Peter can be reached at [email protected]