Illinois Baseball will begin its 141st season today in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
The Fighting Illini finished 36-21 last season, including a 15-9 Big Ten record which was good enough for a third place finish. Head coach Dan Hartleb was named D1 Baseball’s Big Ten Coach of the Decade award, and the Illini returned to the NCAA tournament for the first time in four years.
The Illini had seven players drafted in June last year, but welcome in 18 new additions to the roster. With so much turnover, expect the beginning of the season to be an experimental period of sorts. The skipper alluded to this himself.
“[We] need to see who’s going to respond well in tough situations,” Hartleb said.
Even with these changes, Illinois is still predicted to finish in fourth place in the Big Ten, according to Perfect Game. The Illini will rely on senior closer Garrett Acton who broke the Big Ten record with 19 saves last season. Shortstop Branden Comia, infielder/outfielder Cam McDonald, first baseman Kellen Sarver, and catcher Jacob Campbell are also essential returners that started most of the 2019 season.
Illinois’ first game of the weekend is against Milwaukee. Righty Ty Weber will get Opening Day honors for the second time in his career. Hartleb is confident in the decision to put him on the mound saying.
“He’s a very mature pitcher,” Hartleb said. “He’s got great command of himself, great command of what he’s got going on in the field. He’s got that presence about him.”
Weber has started a total of 43 games and had a 3.28 ERA last season so he’s got all the experience Hartleb could want out of a No. 1.
On Saturday, Ty Rybarczyk will start followed by Aidan Maldonado capping the weekend on Sunday.
The biggest thing for this team and this weekend is its pitching rotation, there’s about six possible starters according to Hartleb.
“The way we have it set up is we have three more starters, or guys who think could be starters, who will kind of piggyback on those guys,” he said.
Who those guys are is still unclear. But he assured that one bad outing wouldn’t eliminate someone from the possibility of becoming a starter.
You can check out The Champaign Room’s pitching preview here.
It’ll be a difficult road ahead for the Illini in the conference season as Michigan is fresh off a run to the 2019 World Series. The Wolverines will be poised for another great season. Aside from them, Indiana, Ohio State, Minnesota, Nebraska and Iowa will prove formidable foes. If the Illini want to keep up in the Big Ten, they can’t take any games off, as the race for the conference title will likely be a close battle between multiple teams.
Illinois swept five of its first six weekends in 2019 helping the Illini notch a 6-0 starting record against a tough schedule. Things don’t look any easier this year as four of Illinois’ first nine games are against preseason top-25 teams. First up is No. 18 Wake Forest, followed by a trip to South Carolina to play Western Carolina and predicted conference champion and NCAA regional team Coastal Carolina (who Illinois won a series against).
While non-conference games always present their unique challenges, look no further than Feb. 28-29 and Mar. 1 for the toughest three-day stretch the Illini will face all season. In the Frisco Classic, the Illini square off against No. 20 Texas A&M, No. 22 Oklahoma State and No. 14 UCLA. While a lot can change in the first couple weeks of the season, this will be a great opportunity for the Illini to steal a few victories against teams from the SEC, Big 12 and Pac-12, respectively
All of this before returning home to Champaign for their home schedule which will officially begin Mar. 3 against Chicago State.