Sidelined from playing the field early this season, Michael Massey’s absence has allowed freshman Branden Comia to carry the load at second base.
To the naked eye, there is just a next-guy-up mentality on the Illini’s roster, but with those two players in particular, there is much more to it.
A friendship lasting over six years is what separates these two middle infielders from the average junior and freshman relationship.
A ‘Spark’ in the Relationship
Comia began playing with the Illinois Sparks travel organization when he was 12 years old. Massey, already in the organization, was a player Comia instantly gravitated toward.
“I’ve always looked up to him,” Comia said. “He’s a great guy to have. He’s just a big team guy and he’ll teach you everything. I feel like I can ask him anything and he’ll give me an honest answer that will help me.”
Comia stuck out to Massey, even when he was just joining the program. The junior was able to recognize the talent and potential the rookie had as early as six years ago.
“Every time I would go work out, you could see the talent that he had and it was impressive to watch. You could just tell he was going to be a stud.” Massey said. “I just kind of always watched from a far a little bit and got to know him a little bit better in my junior and senior year of high school, and then found out he was coming here and we kind of hit it off.”
In regards to Comia’s recruiting process, Massey doesn’t feel he made a difference in Comia’s decision. But Comia revealed that Massey played a role in his decision, even if he did not know it.
“I’ve known Michael Massey and [Illinois shortstop] Ben Troike since I was around twelve years old so they were a huge reason to me coming here,” Comia said. “Once I got my visit here I knew this would be a smart decision to come here because if I ever needed anything, Michael would be there and he’s done exactly that.”
A Helping Hand
Massey sees a lot in Comia, so much that Massey doesn’t even believe he’s really been a factor in Comia’s quick development. Comia has 32 of Illinois’ games and batted near the top of the order in every single one. With a few homers and a triple to his credit thus far, Comia (.232 average, two home runs and 14 RBI) has really stepped up nicely defensively (.965 fielding percentage).
“I love his work ethic, I think he’s just a phenomenal worker.” Massey said, “He’s just gonna be a great player based on the things he does already, and if I can add to that in a small way I will.”
To Comia, Massey (.337 average, five home runs, 25 RBI) has been able to add to his development in a huge way.
“He’s always been a role model to me,” Comia said. “I like that he’s honest with you. He lets you know if you’re in the wrong if you know you did something wrong he’ll be honest with you and I think that’s the best way you can learn from someone.”
The freshman-junior duo is also paired together as roommates on road trips. Both players seem to love the pairing.
“I think it’s been good for both of us to just kinda talk about what we’re seeing or talking about starting pitchers the next day and just kind of our approach in the field,” Massey said.
And it was no coincidence they were paired up.
“There’s a reason to room together on the road,” said head coach Dan Hartleb. “I think [Massey’s] had a great influence on [Comia.]”
At Second Base
Although Massey’s preseason back injury limited him to only hitting as the designated hitter, Comia started in the two-spot just above every game until the gold glover was available to play defense. Comia was relieved by the fact that he had Massey’s power and protection behind him, but Massey is just glad to watch Comia play up close and personal.
“It’s definitely really comforting,” Comia said. “Every time I don’t get the big hit or I strike out or something I know Mike will be right behind me and he can pick me up.”
Following a strike out in the first game of Illinois’ doubleheader versus Southern Illinois back in March, Massey drove a 400-plus foot homer over the scoreboard in right, you could see how excited Comia was I the dugout after not getting the big hit.
“It’s cool to have the best seat in the house to watch him and he’s gonna be a great player,” Massey said.
Over the weekend, Massey saw Comia drive in Troike with a long triple to left field. Massey followed that up by driving in Comia en route to a four-hit performance.
Comia Is Impressing
Massey has without a doubt been impressed by Comia’s performance so far.
“He’s been awesome, he’s been very good defensively. He’s swinging the bat well, he’s got some juice, he drives the ball the other way nice… think he has done a great job adjusting to it [the travel schedule] and he’s only gonna get better.”
But what is the biggest thing the senior has taught the youngster?
“I would say the game is all about the mindset. He’s said, you know, God gave you the talent to get here, now it’s just about how you keep your mind compared to your opponents, so I think that’s definitely the biggest thing I’ve learned from him.”
And coaches have also noticed their relationship.
Infielding Coach Adam Christ noted: “One kinda looks up to the other I think, which is great to have in a program and they push each other to be the best player they can be.
When Massey returns to defensive duties, there is potential for the two of them to play up the middle together. They both expressed excitement toward the idea, but are willing to help the team in whatever way possible.
Once Massey returned from injury, Comia’s role decreased. But after an injury to starting shortstop Ben Troike, the tandem got their chance on May 5.
Massey tallied three hits in four at-bats, and as far as he was concerned, Comia played admirably.
“He did awesome, he stepped up in a big situation and it’s not easy to replace [Troike],” Massey said. “He stepped up and played well, made all the plays defensively had a couple of good at-bats. I feel comfortable with him out there.”
And Massey isn’t the only one who feels like Comia is a great infield option. Former coaches have seen the pair’s comfort with each other too.
When playing on the Illinois Sparks, both Massey and Comia played for coach Tyler Thompson, who described coaching the tandem as a pleasure.
Thompson got his first chance to coach Massey when he was 16 and met Comia back when he was 10 or 11 years old. If nothing else, Thompson is proud and thankful for what these two players did for his travel organization.
“They really, really, really bought in to what we wanted to do and they really pushed us and everybody underneath us to be better,” Thompson said.
Thompson had nothing but praise for the pair of middle infielders.
“Those are guys that you build programs around,” Thomson added. “They mean a tremendous amount to our facility and to our brand.”
Aside from the fact that Comia and Massey play middle infield, Thompson noticed they are similar in other ways — mainly the way they work.
“They’re very very similar people. Branden is probably a little harder on himself than Michael is, in certain ways. But I mean they just, they never left our facility.”
From watching the two middle infielders grow up, Thompson saw a few things in Comia that he may have picked up from Massey along the way.
“The humbleness that Branden plays with is something…I think if Branden took anything from Michael it was just the seriousness and the focus that he had when he was training when he was taking groundballs when he was taking batting practice.”
Thomson believes that focus is the reason Comia is having so much success hitting in front of Massey.
If Michael didn’t think that he influenced Branden’s decision, what does their former coach think?
“I don’t necessarily think it played a huge role. Everybody respected Michael Massey a lot in the organization, so if Illinois was good enough for Michael Massey to go to then I think that Branden would say, ‘Hey man, that dude went there, he is a really good player — there’s no reason I can’t go there.’”
But no matter how it happened, Comia and Massey are teammates in the same program again, and looking to propel the Illini (31-16) to a historic season.
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