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Illini of the Year: Illinois baseball’s Bren Spillane

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Illini of the Year: Illinois baseball’s Bren Spillane

Illinois infielder Bren Spillane (9) hit his 22nd home run of the season in the bottom of the seventh to make it 11-8 on Saturday, May 19.

Illinois infielder Bren Spillane (9) hit his 22nd home run of the season in the bottom of the seventh to make it 11-8 on Saturday, May 19.

Austin Yattoni

Illinois infielder Bren Spillane (9) hit his 22nd home run of the season in the bottom of the seventh to make it 11-8 on Saturday, May 19.

Austin Yattoni

Austin Yattoni

Illinois infielder Bren Spillane (9) hit his 22nd home run of the season in the bottom of the seventh to make it 11-8 on Saturday, May 19.

Coming into the 2018 season, there was not a lot of hype surrounding junior Bren Spillane and the Illinois baseball team.

The Illini make up a team returning much of its talent, and Spillane was merely a player with potential. He had struggled to play well consistently in his first two years while dealing with different injuries.

A couple of months later, things have changed significantly: the Illini are 26-14 (10-5 Big Ten Conference) and control their own NCAA Tournament destiny, while Spillane is third in the nation in batting average (.423) and leads the team in almost every offensive category.

Spillane leads Illinois in batting, slugging percentage (.954), home runs (16), RBI’s (49), hits (55), runs scored (41), doubles (17), total bases (124) and stolen bases (14).

Third-year hitting coach Adam Christ always saw how productive Spillane could be, even in his years as an underclassman, when his numbers were nothing like they are now.

“Bren’s always had the tools to be a good hitter,” Christ said. “It just becomes consistency, staying healthy, having a good work plan every day, not looking at results when you come out to practice, looking at your playing, how you go about it and your position you get in to hit every day. He does the best job of it right now.”

Christ has been around the game for a long time and has experience coaching players who go on hitting tears and those who get caught in a slump.

“The biggest thing is when a guy is on a hitting streak like he was earlier, you stay out of his way,” Christ said. “He was seeing the ball really well and that’s the biggest thing. If he just stays within himself and tries to get a pitch to hit, he’ll do it. If he tries to do too much, he’ll start expanding the zone and then the strikeouts come once he does that. If he stays locked in on his own pitches, he can do a lot of damage.”

Christ also looks to the first baseman as a shining example for younger and less successful players within the program to model their approach after. Christ believes Spillane’s willingness to do what it takes to improve each day and maintain his patience even as he struggled have helped him.

“Bren showed the resilience to come back after a first couple years with some injuries and keep working and keep working,” Christ said. “It gives younger guys a chance to look up and say, ‘Sometimes things don’t always go your way, you have bad luck, you get an injury. But guess what? If you keep working hard, you can do good things’.”

With his numbers this year, Spillane has drawn the eyes of tons of MLB scouts. They love his power at the plate and his production is unrivaled among the vast majority of prospects across the NCAA this season.

He’s 6-foot-5 but also has a wealth of speed, as evidenced by his ability to steal bases with ease. He has a strong arm that he’s showcased at the first base position, and also having experience at third base and in the outfield, his versatility is clear.

He’s well aware of that fact, though, and knows it comes down to his ability to choose the right pitches to take cracks at and be patient, especially when opposing pitchers try to avoid giving him anything hittable.

“It’s something that I know I’ve done all year; my strikeout rate, I’ve struck out a good amount,” Spillane said. “But it’s one of those things where I’m not going to go up there and try not to strike out, you know what I mean? If it happens, it happens, but I think that just comes back to pitch selection.”

Spillane is no stranger to getting big league attention. After all, he was already drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2015, but he chose to develop and wait for his draft stock to rise.

He knows that now may be the time for him, but he said he’ll only go if it’s a situation that he’s comfortable with and feels ready for.

“If the opportunity is right, yeah, (going pro is) the goal,” Spillane said. “Since I was a little kid I’ve wanted to play pro ball, so it just depends if the opportunity is right.”

With that, these last few series and potentially the postseason might be Spillane’s last several weeks at Illinois. If the team fails to make the NCAA Tournament, he could be done as an Illini by the start of June.

The impact Illinois has had on him is immeasurable, and it’s something Spillane will never forget and will always be grateful for. He said he’s become a much better person since coming into the program as a freshman out of Wheeling High School.

“It’s helped me grow on and off the field; I can’t imagine being anywhere else,” Spillane said. “The relationships, everything, I love this place to death. I’ll always be an Illini.”

Observing from the dugout and along the third base line, Christ sees a focused and determined player in front of him. He is unmoved by outside pressure and hype that has grown around him as the season has progressed and is focused on owning the present.

“Bren is just a guy that is very locked in right now,” Christ said. “With everything he does.”

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