Illini of the season: brief baseball campaign highlights top performers

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The Daily Illini file photo

Illinois shortstop Branden Comia (20) snags a ground ball during the game against Maryland in the Big Ten Tournament at TD Ameritrade Park on, May 22, 2019. The Illini lost 6-2.

By Rich Eberwein, Staff Writer

Although the Illinois baseball team’s season was brief this year, it was sprinkled with a handful of impressive performances by players who may play key roles in next year’s squad.  The 8-5 campaign will be forever stuck in limbo, but that doesn’t mean we can’t take a look at a few outstanding performances.

The MVP

The Daily Illini File Photo
Illinois shortstop Branden Comia snags a ground ball during the game against Maryland in the Big Ten Tournament at TD Ameritrade Park on Wednesday, May 22, 2019. The Illini lost 6-2.

Shortstop Branden Comia began his sophomore season hot out of the gate with a slash line of .426/.526/.702 while starting all thirteen games for the Illini. Leading the team in all major hitting categories, aside from runs batted in (tied for first with 10), Comia was on his way to adding a standout season to his resume after hitting his way into the lineup his freshman year. With a solid introductory season under his belt, Comia acted as a young leader in the clubhouse to the 17 fresh faces added to the team since last year and felt more comfortable with his game overall.

“I try to trust myself more as opposed to last year where I was trying to prove something or always come up with a big hit,” said Comia after a 4-for-4 game against Chicago State. “I’m trying to stay within myself and be a leader for the new guys on the team.”

With exceptional plate discipline, emerging leadership qualities and solid glovework at shortstop, it is hard to argue against him being the most valuable player the Illini put on the field in 2020.

The senior who will be missed … possibly

The Daily Illini File Photo
Illinois starting pitcher Ty Weber delivers the pitch during the game against Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament at TD Ameritrade Park on Thursday, May 23, 2019. The Illini lost 5-4.

There’s something to be said about a solid starting pitcher you can put on the mound every fifth day to give you quality innings. For the Illini’s 2020 season, that man was Ty Weber. Weber turned in 20.2 innings of work with a 1.31 ERA over four starts. Illinois also won three of the four games Weber tossed, including a pitcher’s duel against Texas A&M’s Asa Lacy at Dr. Pepper Ballpark in February.

Weber joined the team when he was recruited by head coach Dan Hartleb out of high school, and Weber credits Hartleb and the rest of the coaching staff’s genuine nature as the main reason he chose Illinois. Over Weber’s collegiate career, the 6’4” Wisconsin native evolved from a quiet guy who watched his teammates from a distance as a freshman to a capable staff ace who gladly became a mentor as a senior.

“By now I really felt that I could take the leadership role to help the younger players and give them knowledge that maybe I could’ve used as a freshman,” said Weber while reflecting on his career. “I think my time at Illinois has grown me more as a person than as a player, and I’m hoping that if my time at Illinois is done, I’ll have had a positive impact on many of the younger players for years to come.”

Some of Weber’s many highlights include two complete games, being named No. 28 freshman in the Big Ten in 2017 and starting a game against Indiana in the Big Ten Tournament while he unknowingly had pneumonia.

Weber’s departure will surely leave a massive hole in the rotation and in the clubhouse; that is if he leaves. We may have yet to see Weber’s final work in an Illinois uniform, as the shortened season may result in seniors like Weber receiving an extra year of eligibility to play collegiate baseball should he choose to do so.

Honorable mentions: Garrett Acton

The underclassman to watch

Photo Courtesy of Fighting Illini Athletics
Freshman Pitcher Cole Kirschsieper winds up a pitch during the game against Elon on March 6 at Latham Park. The Illini lost 10-6.

Should Weber depart from Illinois, the starting rotation may have found its new mainstay in the form of current freshman Cole Kirschsieper. The Frankfort, Illinois native made four appearances for Illinois in 2020 and sported a minute 1.35 ERA while picking up three wins.  The southpaw’s best appearance came on March 7 when he led the Illini to a 6-1 victory over the Elon Phoenix and hurled 6.2 shutout innings while setting down 4 via strikeout.

Kirschsieper attended high school at Lincoln-Way East where he set nine school records and pitched well enough to be ranked the No. 41 left-handed pitcher in the nation by Prep Baseball Report and No. 2 in the state of Illinois. Hartleb could need more options for his rotation next year, and Kirschsieper will no doubt be mentioned in those talks.

Honorable Mentions: Brody Harding, Danny Doligale, Xavier Watson

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