As this team in Orange and Blue head down the stretch, here are five things to know about the Illini.
This team is RED HOT
The Illinois Fighting Illini sit comfortably at No. 23 in the nation having won three in a row, six of seven and 12 of their last 15 games. On the year, the Illini have won 34 games compared to only 16 losses.
This Illini team started cold in the Big Ten — 1-5 to be exact — but now have racked up 12 wins with three losses since that poor start. This puts head coach Dan Hartleb’s team at third in the Big Ten, and with only three games to play in the regular season/conference the Illini have a chance to win the conference.
Currently pegged as a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament, the Illini still have three games to improve their seeding in the Big Ten as well.
This team is arguably the best defensive club in the nation
This team defensively is one of the most fundamentally sound squads in the country. Due to both tremendous depth and coaching, the Illini simply do not commit errors. Aside from a hiccup in a game against Purdue when the Illini uncharacteristically committed three errors, this team is the best defensive team in the nation.
Illinois is currently tied for second-best team fielding percentage in the country at .982 (which would be both a program and conference record) and sit only .002 points away from Xavier. The Illini are second in the nation in fewest errors per game (.66) as well.
Although a lot can be said about junior Michael Massey’s defense (no errors since his freshman year in 2017) he missed time in the field with a back injury. Branden Comia stepped up in his absence and only made six errors in his freshman season (same amount as Massey’s freshman year).
When Zac Taylor, one error in 106 chances, went down with an injury, Cam McDonald took his place and started in centerfield for the first time, and has since played third, first, and left and has committed only four errors.
Whether it has been potential Gold Glovers like Massey, Ben Troike or Taylor having five errors combined all year — or newcomers making plays around the diamond — this team has shown that no matter who stands behind their pitchers, the plays will be made.
That is an extremely comforting feeling for pitchers like Andy Fisher who don’t overpower on the mound and pitch to contact, and it is also a recipe for success for Illinois in the future.
This team has a wide open window for success that may close quickly
This Illini team has leaders by the dozen and it seems that all of those players produce for this team in some way.
Jack Yalowitz, Grant Van Scoy, Jeff Korte and Taylor are in the lineup nearly everyday and will not be at Illinois next year.
Yalowitz has won Big Ten Player of the Week and has yet to make an error this year; Grant Van Scoy leads this team in batting average; Jeff Korte has thrown out six potential basestealers; and Zac Taylor leads the Big Ten in steals and the Illini in home runs.
This team will also be without role players David Craan, Michael Michalak, Tyler Engel, Casey Dodge and Ryan Haff come next season.
On the pitching staff, this team is losing Andy Fisher, Quinn Snarskis, Sean Leland, Quentin Sefcik, Zak Devermann — over 41% of its wins, a year after returning 98% of wins.
Fisher has been one of the nation’s most consistent pitchers this year, with a 6-2 record, a 2.53 ERA and over 80 strikeouts.
Out of the pen, Leland and Sefcik have been a 1-2 punch to bridge games from starter to closer, and have tallied eight wins along the way.
This Illini team has both an incredibly talented but also aged team, with a golden chance to have some success.
Point is, a lot of extremely valuable players are leaving this team regardless of how well they do — and potentially even more once this summer’s MLB Draft takes place.
This team has almost 10 draftable players
I am not a scout, nor do I work for any MLB team or have any insight on who any perspective team may draft, but I do watch both a lot of professional baseball and know this Illini team very well. So I will make my case for some of the Illini that may get drafted.
JACK YALOWITZ- In his final chance to prove that he belongs in the pros, he has hit .299 with five home runs and 30 runs batted in. From the left side of the play Yalowitz provides both good power and speed and has yet to commit an error this year in right field.
ZAC TAYLOR- Taylor has been the difference maker for this Illini team. As a junior, Taylor knew he could be better and chose to return and play one last year in orange and blue. In a year barred by 14 games missed with an injury, Taylor has still found ways to lead the Big Ten in steals, club eight home runs, drive in 25 runs and make a difference in centerfield, all while hitting over .330.
MICHAEL MASSEY- Massey, to me, looks like the player who has the most potential, and he’s only a junior. Let’s start with Massey’s pure lefty swing. The second basemen has been rated the best pure hitter in the Big Ten by Baseball America. With that pure swing Massey has a .328 batting average with five dingers and 25 RBIs. Not to mention, defensively, Massey hasn’t made in error since 2017. Massey has potential to be a .300 hitter and Gold Glover anywhere in the infield.
BEN TROIKE- Despite his season being cut short due to injury (which makes me think he may be back next year) Troike has been an exemplary leadoff hitter and dependable shortstop. On the year, Troike batted .260 with 21 RBIs and has reached base at a .348 clip. At the infield’s hardest position, Troike made only four errors. More likely the build of a third or second basemen, Troike presents a big league club a solid glove and bat for any spot in the order.
ANDY FISHER- What has made Andy Fisher incredible is he has been both consistent and dominant all year for this club. Fisher leads the clubs in wins, innings pitched, strikeouts, and has done so with a great attitude and strategy on the mound. Fisher leads his team by example and pitches to contact and lets his defense perform to the best of their ability. Fastball command paired with a deadly slider and solid change, Fisher is a tough guy to hit and does not always light up the radar gun.
TY WEBER- Weber is everything that Andy Fisher is not, in a good way. Weber occasionally pitches to contact but has the ability to let his stuff take over games. He currently sits 4-1 with a 2.48 ERA, the best of the Illini’s starters. Weber comes at hitters with two variations of his fastball and three breaking pitches, changing speeds and hitting his spots. The tall right-hander can give a big league club a chance to be a back-end reliever as well.
CYRILLO WATSON- Watson is one of the most inconsistent pitchers but has potential to be lights out on the mound. With a high-90s fastball with good off-speed pitches, Watson without a doubt has big-league potential. Watson may need another year to develop but has demonstrated greatness with four wins and a sub-four ERA.
GARRETT ACTON- Acton leads the Illini with 17 saves and is closing in on a Big Ten record in that category. The righty flamethrower has been reliable and dominant in the ninth inning role this year and has shown the ability to do that beyond this stage. Acton is the only Illini pitcher with a sub-two ERA and averages over a strikeout per inning — music to Major League officials’ ears.
The Illini can go deep into the tournament
The Illini are still working on improving their Big Ten overall seeding, but they have also shown they have what it takes to make a run in any tournament they are in.
This team also has three exemplary starters (Fisher, Weber and Watson) and could go to senior Quinn Snarskis if need be. The Illini rank third in the nation averaging 6.9 hits given up per game.
Even when those runners get into scoring position they don’t often score as opponents are hitting just .198 against them with runners in scoring position.
This team also plays relatively error-free baseball all around the field.
You know what they say: pitching and defense wins championships.
But you can’t win without scoring runs.
The Illini have a deep lineup with nine hitters hitting over .250 (Comia, Troike, Kellen Sarver, Michalak, McDonald, Yalowitz, Massey, Taylor, Van Scoy) and three hitters above .300 (Massey, Taylor, Van Scoy).
Aside from catcher, those players typically fill the other eight spots in the batting order (Troike is injured, Michalak at DH).
The Illini also have eight players who have driven in 20+ runs, and seven who have score 20+ runs, averaging to this offense scoring over five runs per game.
But beyond all of these stats, the results speak for themselves — the Illini beat good teams.
Illinois is 11-5 against the RPI top-50 teams, which ranks sixth in the nation in winning percentage (.688). This Illinois team has also gone 5-2 against ranked teams and has won two series against teams ranked (Coastal Carolina and Indiana).
So whether you prefer to look at raw numbers or past results, both point to the fact that Illinois looks poised to make a deep run into post season.
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