Baseball '13: Illini preview

Illinois baseball opens its 134th season Friday, traveling to Tennessee Tech for the start of a three-game series against the Golden Eagles. Beat writer JEFF HUTH offers five storylines on the 2013 Illini:

1. Welcome back
In the field and on the mound, this is one of the most experienced Illini teams in recent memory. Today’s probable lineup includes six position players who between them have a total of 10 seasons of college experience as starters. Illinois returnees accounted for 79.7 percent of the 2012 team’s hits and 78 percent of the runs. Returning pitchers recorded 85.7 percent of the wins (24 of 28) and 76.2 percent of innings pitched last season. “I think that bodes well for us,” eighth-year UI coach Dan Hartleb said. “When you have experienced guys, you’ve been through some battles, you’ve been through some ups and downs. You’ve had those learning experiences. We have had some very good teams when we’ve had that very good senior leadership.”

2. New faces
Hartleb is showing no hesitation about throwing true freshmen into the competitive fires immediately. Jason Goldstein of Highland Park has won the catcher’s job that belonged to redshirt sophomore Kelly Norris-Jones last season. Ryan Nagle of Streator is the Opening Day starter at first base. And two of the three scheduled starting pitchers this weekend are freshmen: left-hander Kevin Duchene of Joliet Catholic and right-hander Nick Blackburn of Naperville Nequa Valley. Goldstein would be the first true freshman to start a season opener at catcher for Illinois since Brian Schullian in 1992. Ranked the No. 4 prep catcher in the nation by Perfect Game, Goldstein proved to be the best at throwing,  receiving, handling pitchers and hitting among the UI catching candidates, according to Hartleb. “If you put all aspects together, Jason at this point is the one that’s been ahead,” he said. “But now he’s going to have to go out and perform that way.”

3. Depth charge
Hartleb regards his current bullpen as the deepest since he’s been at Illinois. “This is the first time since I’ve been at Illinois — and this is my 23rd year — that we’re going to have some depth in the bullpen,” he said. “And I feel really good about that.” The back end of the bullpen is manned by junior Ronnie Muck and redshirt sophomore Reid Roper. The duo shared the team lead in saves last season with three apiece while combining for a 3-1 record in 36 appearances. Roper, who enters his second season as the starting second baseman, and Muck are on the preseason watch list for the 2013 national Stopper of the Year Award. Other experienced arms in the bullpen include 2012 starter John Kravetz and Drasen Johnson. Hartleb is excited about the large number of left-handed options — four southpaw relievers will make this weekend’s trip. “We’ve never had more than one or two (left-handers) that we even pitched, and sometimes they couldn’t get people out,” he said. “I just like that we have some matchups (against right-handed hitters).”

4. Starting points
It says something about the incoming pitching talent that Kravetz is not in the current starting rotation. All the right-hander did last season was set an all-time UI record for victories by a freshman while going 8-3, including 4-2 in eight Big Ten starts. But Duchene and Blackburn earned the nod to join senior Kevin Johnson in the rotation. Duchene, 15-4 in high school, was Prep Baseball Reports’ pick as the state’s No. 6 prospect in the Class of 2012. Blackburn was ranked No. 21 and, says Hartleb “has been the person that’s really stood out” in preseason practice. Johnson enters his fourth season in the rotation and third as the No. 1 starter. The durable right-hander won a career-best seven games last season. If anyone in the current rotation falters, Hartleb has experienced starters like Kravetz and Johnson to turn to. The UI coach is hopeful redshirt sophomore Rob McDonnell can make an impact as the left-hander continues to work his way back from Tommy John surgery two years ago.  “We’re probably going to have to go through some things from a youth standpoint, but I do feel like as we move along that the staff could be a strong point of our team,” Hartleb said.

5. Draft dodging
There are years when Major League Baseball’s amateur draft can do a number on a team. The 2012 Illini felt the draft’s sting when catcher Adam Davis, shortstop Josh Parr and pitcher Corey Kimes turned pro in June 2011 following their junior season. Highly touted recruit Charlie Tilson, picked in the second round that year, also was lost to the play-for-pay ranks. These personnel losses weren’t the only reason Illinois went from a 2011 Big Ten champion and NCAA regional finalist to a 28-25 team that missed the Big Ten tournament, but it had an undeniable impact. One year later, the draft was far kinder to the Illini. Although three players with remaining eligibility were selected last June, only one — reliever Matt Milroy — opted to sign. Jordan Parr (26th round) and Johnson (31st round) decided to return for their senior year after being chosen deep in the draft. Thus, the 2013 Illini were able to hang on to their No. 1 starting pitcher and their top returning hitter. Parr, who is moving from first base to left field this season, led the 2012 Illini in seven offensive categories. If Hartleb was concerned about how each would react to draft disappointment, he isn’t now. “They came back with great attitudes,” the UI coach said. “Sometimes you get those guys that come back, and they pout. They feel like they don’t want to be there. But these guys came back from Day 1 and talked to the young guys about how important it was to work hard. ... I’m really pleased with ... the leadership they’ve shown.”
 

Categories (3):Baseball, Illini Sports, Sports

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