Illinois baseball 2015 season preview: position breakdown

By Peter Bailey-Wells

This is the second in a series previewing the Illinois baseball season. Look for a opening weekend preview of the Illini on Thursday.

Every prospective opening day starter for the Illinois baseball team started more than half of 2014 at his respective position. The Illini have been practicing for three weeks for this weekend’s season-opening trip to Beaumont, Texas, to face Lamar State and New Mexico State. Here is a positional breakdown of the 2015 Illini.

Infielders

All five players who started at least one game in the infield last year return for another season with the Illini. Senior David Kerian led the team in doubles and RBIs last season, while starting 51 games at first base.

Sophomore Adam Walton will play shortstop. He started the last 37 games at the position on his way to the team’s highest batting average (.329), a second-team All-Big Ten award and Louisville Slugger freshman All-American honors.

The Roper brothers, senior second baseman Reid and sophomore third baseman Ryne, started more than 50 games apiece last season. Reid tied Kerian for the most RBIs on the team and Ryne joined Walton on the All-Big Ten freshman team.

Ryne said the chemistry between last year’s starters is key to the unit’s success.

“Playing with Reid’s a blast,” Ryne said. “We know where each other’s going to be, not just me and Reid, but all four of us.”

Senior Michael Hurwitz spent most of last season as the designated hitter, but was the opening day starter at second base and can also play third.

Outfielders

The outfield provided both power and speed on offense for Illinois last season. The group includes the team’s leading home run hitter, senior Casey Fletcher, and the team’s leading base stealer, senior Will Krug.

Fletcher (six home runs) starts in right field and Krug (20 stolen bases) in center. Both hit over .300 last season. Krug started every game in the leadoff spot last year and led the team in runs. Both were honored with spots on the All-Big Ten second team.

Ryan Nagle patrols left field for the Illini and the junior tied for second on the team in runs scored last year. He and Krug committed only one error each last season.

Sophomore Pat McInerney saw some time in the outfield last season when Nagle went down with illness and chipped in with a pair of doubles and one home run.

Catchers

Junior Jason Goldstein started 89 games behind the dish in his first two years at Illinois and is the prospective starter again this season. He finished second on the team in batting average (.316) and doubles, and third in home runs (four) and RBIs (28). He was selected to the All-Big Ten second-team and has been tabbed by some to earn first-team honors this season.

Goldstein’s backup is senior Kelly Norris-Jones, who started 45 games as a freshman but has suffered injuries in the last two seasons that have limited his playing time. Look for a healthy Norris-Jones to backup Goldstein and to spend some time at designated hitter.

Pitchers

While the Illini return virtually every member of their starting lineup last season, it may be the pitching staff that is the team’s strongest unit. At the start of spring practice, head coach Dan Hartleb called this the deepest staff he’s ever had. Last season’s pitching staff broke the team ERA record, posting a 3.25 mark last season.

Senior Drasen Johnson was the staff’s workhorse, throwing 96 innings and totaling 79 strikeouts. His five wins were second on the team.

Senior John Kravetz returns after winning a team-high six games last season and picking up All-Big Ten second-team honors. Kravetz’s 19 career wins are ninth on the school’s all-time list.

Despite missing six weeks with forearm tightness, junior Kevin Duchene still managed to win four games last season and post the team’s lowest ERA (1.80). Duchene also had the second-lowest opponent batting average on the team (.215), after closer and preseason All-American Tyler Jay (.190).

Jay recorded 10 saves and four wins as a junior last season, finishing with 47 strikeouts in just 41 2/3 innings of work. Jay spent the summer playing for the USA Baseball collegiate team and was named to the preseason Golden Spikes Award watch list Tuesday. The Golden Spikes award is given to the top amateur player in the country.

Senior Rob McDonnell picked up some quality innings last season and looks to be the team’s fourth starter — he won four of his five starts in 2014.

Overall, the pitching staff was full of confidence for a season they feel is theirs for the taking.

“We’ve got very few holes,” Jay said. “We have dudes that can throw.”

Peter can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @PBaileyWells.