Coming off a season where Illinois failed to make the NCAA tournament, this year’s Illini team looks to build off of last season’s heartbreak with production from infielders all over the diamond.
Many Illini baseball fans can recall the name ‘Bren Spillane’ pretty easily — potentially a future contributor for the Cincinnati Reds — but it’s time to get to know who will be monitoring the infield for the Illini in 2019.
One thing is for certain and it’s that Ben Troike will be playing shortstop and Michael Massey will be playing second base. The two combined for 76 runs batted in a year ago (Troike’s 30 and Massey’s 46) and will look to build on those numbers in the heart of the order this season. Troike batted a tick shy of .300 last year and will eat up groundballs as the captain of the infield. Meanwhile, Massey dazzled defensively with only one error a year ago. He paired that with the team’s second-highest batting average of .326.
Brandon Comia comes in as the 13th-ranked shortstop in the country and clubbed two bombs in the team’s trip to Aruba and Curacao. Comia looks to be a solid lock to back up these two middle inflielders as the season gets underway. Head Coach Dan Hartleb will be happy to have a guy like Comia in the system without a doubt.
With Troike and Massey solidifying the middle positions, that leaves a fight between roughly 10 guys for the remaining two spots in the infield. Some of those players, like Michael Michalak, also play the outfield.
Grant Van Scoy looks like a favorite to grab at-bats coming off of a season in which he played in over 50 games, and reached based at a .322 rate. Ryan Haff could be another guy to get time at first base. He showed great potential at the plate, but appeared in only 16 games. Finally, Casey Dodge is a redshirt junior who has displayed great power numbers at Illinois as a designated hitter. Dodge hit .333 during a six-game trip to Curaçao and Aruba in November.
BEHIND THE PLATE
Hartleb has a luxury not many coaches do: a surplus of catchers. With the current roster, Hartleb has at least four options to eat up innings behind the plate. Based on last year’s numbers, the favorite to get the opening day nod would be Jeff Korte. Korte batted in the .260s last season and drove in over 25 runs, all while providing valuable defense.
A newcomer — who could’ve been in the Chicago Cubs system — Jason Campbell comes to Illinois as the No. 8 catcher in the nation and will look to turn heads behind the dish come spring. Kellen Sarver may provide some innings at first or catcher this season, coming off of a redshirt year. And finally, David Craan is another valuable option to catch this year. He’s coming off a campaign in which he batted .134, and will have to get things going in the right direction when the season gets underway next week.
One thing is sure for Hartleb, and that’s the depth inside the Illini infield. With many different combinations to ponder, Hartleb has some choices to make before the season kicks off on Feb. 15.
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