Spring in their step
Beat writer Jeff Huth breaks down the 2014 Illini baseball schedule, which was announced this week:
Hoping there will be a lot to love about the 2014 season, the Illini open their schedule on Valentine’s Day (Feb. 14) against Georgia State at Atlanta. Should the Illini sweep the three-game series against the Panthers and their preseason All-America third-team DH Chase Raffield, the UI coaching staff might consider stopping at Fannie May before leaving town to treat the guys. We recommend the Sea Salt Caramels.
While the rest of us shiver through the remainder of the winter, Dan Hartleb’s team will visit Georgia, South Carolina and Florida during the first three weekends of the season. After opening in Atlanta, the Illini play three games at Myrtle Beach, S.C., followed by four more at Gainesville, Fla. Hey, boss, is there money in the budget to assign the beat writer to the Caravelle Resort’s Baseball at the Beach Tournament? We can assure you this request has nothing to do with the words resort and beach.
If the Illini are looking to toughen up for the Big Ten race, their preconference schedule should do the trick. Among the opponents are three teams that appear in Collegiate Baseball’s preseason poll: No. 16 Florida, No. 34 Wichita State and No. 40 Coastal Carolina. In 2013, Florida advanced to the NCAA regionals for the sixth year in a row, matching the longest such streak in program history. Wichita State returns eight position starters — including preseason third-team All-Americans Tyler Baker (catcher) and Garrett Bayliff (outfielder) — and seven pitchers from last year’s NCAA regional qualifier. Coastal Carolina is one of 11 Division I programs to play in an NCAA regional each of the last seven years. The UI’s preconference slate includes three other teams that receive votes in the CB preseason poll: Illinois State, Missouri and Florida Gulf Coast.
The Illini open the Big Ten race on March 28 against Purdue at Illinois Field, with Michigan, Indiana and Michigan State also visiting Champaign. It’s who Illinois is not scheduled to play during its 24-game conference schedule that is worth noting. Of the five teams that joined the Illini in the Big Ten tournament last year, two are not on the UI’s 2014 schedule — Ohio State and Minnesota. Of course, it’s far too early to address with true confidence whether the Buckeyes and Gophers will be as good or better than they were in 2013. However, each was among the Big Ten’s five teams that received votes in Collegiate Baseball’s preseason poll.
Save the date
If you can make it to only one series — or even merely one game — at Illinois Field this season, set aside time during the final weekend in April. Indiana, which last year became the first Big Ten program since 1984 to reach the College World Series, is coming to town for a three-game series April 25-27. And these preseason No. 7-ranked Hoosiers look a whole lot like the group that won 49 games and went 1-2 in Omaha in 2013. Tracy Smith’s current team returns seven position starters and the DH as well as three pitchers who started in the postseason. The closer and set-up reliever are back, too. And did we mention that four Hoosiers were selected Louisville Slugger preseason All-Americans — the second most of any program in the country? Given this wealth of talent, it’s fair to speculate on whether Indiana might become the first Big Ten team to compete in consecutive College World Series since Michigan in 1983-84.
Future big leaguers?
Baseball America has built its magazine/website brand on covering MLB player development and the sources of that talent, including the college game. When the Illini take the field this season, they’ll be competing against as many as eight players regarded by BA as being among the Top 100 2014 draft prospects in college baseball. The group includes No. 16 Kyle Schwarber (c/1b, Indiana); No. 28 Casey Gillaspie (1b, Wichita State); No. 35 Sam Coonrod (rhp, Southern Illinois); No. 48 Ben Smith (lhp, Coastal Carolina); No. 50 Sam Travis (1b, Indiana); No. 51 Michael Suchy (of, Florida Gulf Coast); No. 92 Daniel Savas (rhp, Illinois State); and No. 96 Dustin DeMuth (3b, Indiana). We can envision some Illini pitcher years from now bragging about the time he struck out MLB All-Star Schwarber.