The Daily Illini

Spillane leads Illini to hot start

Illinois+infielder+Bren+Spillane+hits+the+ball+during+the+game+against+Indiana+State+at+Illinois+Field+on+Sept.+24.+Spillane+has+helped+carry+the+Illini+through+a+five-game+winning+streak.
Illinois infielder Bren Spillane hits the ball during the game against Indiana State at Illinois Field on Sept. 24. Spillane has helped carry the Illini through a five-game winning streak.

Illinois infielder Bren Spillane hits the ball during the game against Indiana State at Illinois Field on Sept. 24. Spillane has helped carry the Illini through a five-game winning streak.

Austin Yattoni

Austin Yattoni

Illinois infielder Bren Spillane hits the ball during the game against Indiana State at Illinois Field on Sept. 24. Spillane has helped carry the Illini through a five-game winning streak.

By Gavin Good, Assistant sports editor

The Illinois baseball team is on a five-game winning streak and is coming off a weekend trip to Minneapolis, where it swept the 2012 (Arizona) and 2013 (UCLA) NCAA Champions.

The Illini are ranked No. 2 in the country in fielding percentage (.994) and No. 19 in double plays per game, averaging 1.22 through nine games.

There was a major question for the Illini entering the season, though. How would they replace MLB-bound first baseman Pat McInerney?

It’s been answered.

Junior Bren Spillane has made the switch over from third base, replaced there by fellow junior Grant Van Scoy, and he has enjoyed resounding success so far.

Spillane is leading the Illini with a .382 batting average in 34 at-bats. He has 13 hits, five of them doubles, and boasts a slugging percentage of .676.

Head coach Dan Hartleb is happy with how Spillane has adjusted to an entirely new position in such a short time.

“He’s talented enough to be one of the best players in the country. He’s got that natural ability,” Hartleb said. “There’s a lot that goes into it: the work ethic, which has always been good, the mentality, the confidence. There are so many factors. He’s made great strides in all those areas, so I’m really pleased with where he’s at and really proud of what he’s done.”

Spillane already feels comfortable playing on the opposite side of the field, despite the different dynamics of playing first base.

“It’s going good; it’s been a pretty smooth transition,” Spillane said. “I’ve never really played there before. The practice we do here and the coaches have been guiding me along.”

There are a lot of technical differences, but besides being the most frequent target when trying to put out batters, most of them are relatively small.

At first base, he faces down batters from a different angle, and depending on if the batter is right-handed or left-handed, the ball tends to bounce and spin differently than when hit to third. The position requires different adjustments when defending bunts, when the defense shifts and during cut off throws.

Other than that, it hasn’t been a big deal for Spillane.

“I know I had it in me, it was just a matter of going out and showing it,” Spillane said. “Making some smaller adjustments throughout the year and through summer ball, fall ball and up to now, it feels really good.”

He attributes most of his success to sticking with the plan that has been preached by the coaching staff: doing the small things right, every day, winning each at-bat, executing in bunt situations and being ready for anything, anytime.

Spillane thinks his team is doing well for mainly the same reasons. He also believes that after getting the minor aspects of the game right and executing consistently, Illinois is buzzing with confidence.

“Knowing that we’re going up against top-25 teams and winning, on the road especially, is always something that gets our confidence going,” Spillane said. “Just the ability to go up there and stay composed in front of a lot of people and going into Minnesota was really cool with the Vikings’ dome and all of that.”

Hartleb said many players struggle to mentally adjust to position or lineup changes and with making the team the first priority.

Not Spillane.

“Some guys, if you switch positions, they shut down on you,” Hartleb said. “Their ego’s so big, it’s like, ‘I shouldn’t be the one being moved’, they don’t ever think about the team. Bren, he just wants to be on the field, he wants to do what’s best for the team.”

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