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Illinois Baseball has high expectations for newcomers entering 2020 season

Get all of your Illini baseball questions answered before opening day.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Big Ten Baseball’s Coach of the Decade Dan Hartleb met with the media this week and addressed the roster ahead of this weekend’s season opener.

Opening weekend starting rotation

Hartleb announced the starting rotation for this weekend in North Carolina as the team plays Milwaukee, Seton Hall and Wake Forest. It will be led off by senior Ty Weber.

In 16 starts last season, Weber was 7-1 with a 2.75 ERA and his head coach is confident in his ability to anchor the rotation this season.

“He’s a very mature pitcher,” Hartleb said. “Fourth year being a starter for us, he’s got great command of himself and great command of what he’s throwing on the field.”

Following Weber on Saturday is going to be Ty Rybarczyk, the transfer sophomore from Parkland College. On Sunday, sophomore flamethrower Aidan Maldonado will take the hill for the Illini.

Hartleb has faith in not only his top three guys, but various other pitchers as well.

“The rotation is going to be kind of a work in progress,” Hartleb said. “We’ve got six pitchers that we feel like could be starters.

“Guys are going to have to earn their starts.”

Starting lineup answers

On the diamond there are some major shoes to fill with short stop Ben Troike, second baseman Michael Massey, center fielder Zac Taylor and right fielder Jack Yalowitz all moving on to the Major Leagues after last season.

The middle infield seems pretty much decided, with not only Hartleb but the entire Big Ten high on Branden Comia, who was named to the preseason award watch list.

“If you look at the god-given talent, there’s a lot there,” Hartleb said. “I am pleased with the physical side of things as well as the mental capacity and the things he is capable of doing. I think he’s a really good player; I think he’ll be a great player once he trusts his ability even more.”

Comia started last season at second base while Massey battled injury, then found himself on the bench during the middle of the season when Massey returned. However, after Troike injured his thumb, Comia finished the season as the team’s starting shortstop.

Who will join Comia up the middle?

“Branden Comia and Brodie Harding right now look like they’re gonna be the guys who start on Friday,” Hartleb said. “They’re going to have to continue to do the same things they’ve done in practice and play at a high level. I’m very confident in their abilities and I think we’re gonna be very good up the middle again.”

Harding is a freshman who is expected to make a huge impact, as he came to Illinois as the second-ranked shortstop in the state.

The outfield seems to be something Hartleb has not decided on yet, but he did mention his confidence in multiple players to roam the outfield.

“We have about five guys that I feel good about in the outfield,” Hartleb said. “Right now, it’s a group of guys that are going to fight for positions out there.”

Newcomers expectations

The Illini have 18 newcomers this season — 12 are freshman and six are transfers. While recruiting is obviously important, Hartleb stressed the impact of the transfer pool.

“You’re always hopeful when you have transfers,” Hartleb said. “Going into Friday as much as you expect [them to play with composure because of experience] they could act like freshman for a couple of days.”

The Illini skipper is looking out to see which players show poise and control in their first collegiate games for Illinois — and which are battling nerves.

“Our freshman/sophomore classes both have really good talent in it,” Hartleb said. “It’ll be interesting on Friday...some guys will be a deer in headlights, some guys will be extremely nervous...but I expect a lot of guys to handle it well.”

Cam McDonald

The sophomore utility man saw action last season all over the diamond. McDonald saw time at third base, first base, and across each outfield position a season ago. His bat seems to be a fixture in the lineup for sure, but where he slots in the field is still up for grabs.

“Where Cam plays is going to depend on a lot of other people,” Hartleb said. “I always want somebody that we can move around.”

McDonald hit .281 last season, and led the Illini with 34 RBI in the middle of Hartleb’s order as a freshman. He is expected to take a big step forward in his sophomore campaign, despite battling an injury and not knowing where he may play.

“Cam had a little bit of a hamstring issue over the past couple weeks so we’ll see where he is at on Friday,” Hartleb said. “I see him being in the lineup up right now but we’ll see once he’s 100% healthy where he ends up.”