Jeff Huth: UI baseball storylines

The Illini baseball team, which has yet to practice outside, leaves behind the Midwest cold and snow this weekend for Atlanta. There, coach Dan Hartleb’s snow birds will begin the season with a three-game series against Georgia State. The forecast for Friday’s opener? Mostly cloudy with a high of 54 degrees. In other words, absolutely balmy compared to Illinois Field. News-Gazette beat writer Jeff Huth offers five storylines on the 2014 Illini, who have their fingers crossed that East Central Illinois will be thawed out by their scheduled March 18 home opener against Indiana State.

Pitching in

It’s a rare year when pitching is regarded as the unquestioned strength of an Illini baseball team entering the season. This is one of those uncommon years for a program best known for racking up the hits and running the bases.

“I feel really good about our pitching staff,” said ninth-year head coach Dan Hartleb, a member of the UI coaching staff since 1991. “On paper — velocitywise, commandwise, experiencewise — we’re better than we’ve ever been.”

And even the losses of career 20-game winner Kevin Johnson and one of the program’s all-time best closers, Bryan Roberts (tied for third in career saves) doesn’t alter that perception. Illinois returns 81.2 percent of its innings pitched, 77.8 percent of its strikeouts and 74.2 percent of its wins from a 2013 staff that compiled the UI’s lowest ERA (3.76) in 37 years.

That last figure is all the more impressive considering that No. 1 starter Johnson did not pitch after mid-April due to a forearm strain. His absence, however, didn’t keep Illinois from finishing with 35 wins and reaching the NCAA tournament for the second time in three seasons.

Now the Illini return their entire post-Johnson weekend starting rotation, a group led by 2013 Freshman All-American and Big Ten Freshman of the Year Kevin Duchene. The precocious left-hander went 9-1 — setting a program record for wins by a freshman — with a team-best 2.79 ERA. When the Illini opened the 2013 Big Ten and NCAA tournaments, it was Duchene who got the starting call.

“I was put in the big situations at the end of last year in which I felt like I got enough experience to really thrive in pressure situations this year,” he said.

Getting a promotion

Kevin Johnson might be gone, but that surname still is very prominent on the Illini pitching staff. In fact, Drasen Johnson has pitched his way into the starting rotation, joining Kevin Duchene and John Kravetz after turning in one stellar relief performance after another during the final six weeks last season. In his last 12 appearances of 2013, the redshirt junior allowed one run and 11 hits in 172/3 innings while earning three wins.

“We like what we’ve seen from him,” UI coach Dan Hartleb said. “We think he’ll do a great job starting, but he’s versatile. You always have that option of putting him (back) in the bullpen.”

Johnson, who is taking the place of sophomore Ryan Castellanos in the top-three rotation, is scheduled to start Sunday’s game in Atlanta.

“I’m very excited for that,” Johnson said. “My (redshirt freshman) year, I got a handful of starts (four), so I have experience doing that, so I think I’ll have no problem jumping in there.”

Johnson and Hartleb point to a change in the right-hander’s delivery last season as a critical reason for his emergence. Instead of throwing over the top, the Chillicothe native moved his arm angle to a three-quarters delivery.

“I’ve got a lot more movement on my fastball now, which allows me to use my other pitches more effectively,” Johnson said.

The adjustment also has allowed Johnson to keep his pitches lower in the strike zone more consistently.

“He used to be a little bit of a back-bend-type guy and threw straight over the top, and I thought at times elevated (the ball) there,” Hartleb said. “(Now) the ball’s running all over the place.”

Vacancy signs

The pitching staff might be well-stocked with talent and experience, but the Illini have plenty of question marks and holes to fill in the field. Illinois must replace its entire outfield as well as the left side of the infield. The lone returning position starters are first baseman David Kerian, second baseman Reid Roper and catcher Jason Goldstein. And it’s possible that Roper could wind up on the other side of the infield and that Goldstein (.231, 11 RBI) could be fighting to hang onto his job as Hartleb seeks more hitting production from that position.

Look for the Illini coach to use the preconference schedule to sift through the multiple candidates he has at virtually every position in hopes of settling on a stable lineup by the Big Ten opener in late March.

“We just have so many open positions from last year that three weeks from now I probably handle the (question about who will start) a little bit differently,” Hartleb said. “But I’m not counting anybody out.”

Because solid defense starts with being strong up the middle, the Illini coach’s key decisions involve settling on a catcher, a shortstop-second base combination and a center fielder.

Redshirt junior Kelly Norris-Jones, who has made 58 career starts, joins Goldstein in the picture at catcher. Hartleb even mentioned redshirt junior Roper as a possibility behind the plate.

The keystone combo candidates include Roper, 2013 Illinois Gatorade Player of the Year Ryne Roper (Reid’s brother), redshirt freshman Zack Kolakowski, sophomore Adam Walton and junior Michael Hurwitz. Depending on how the middle infield shakes out, Reid Roper could even end up at third base.

In the outfield, Hartleb faces a decision on where to position his top returnee, Will Krug. The junior won the right field job in 2013 before suffering a broken arm midway through the season.

“I think he’s our best center fielder,” Hartleb said, “but I also think our right field (conditions at Illinois Field) is extremely difficult.

Depending on where Krug ends up, Hartleb then will pick from multiple options for the other outfield spots, The group of candidates includes junior college transfer and former Oakwood High School standout Casey Fletcher. The son of former MLB All-Star and ex-Illini Darrin Fletcher was a two-time NJCAA All-American at Kankakee Community College.

Lost production

Graduation and the draft left a sizable void not only in the field but at the plate. Gone are the Parr twins — outfielders Justin and Jordan — as well as shortstop Thomas Lindauer and third baseman Brandon Hohl. That foursome combined for 280 hits, 78 extra-base hits and 173 RBI last season.

Beyond All-Big Ten first-teamer Kerian (.313, 39 RBI), Hurwitz (.296, 14 extra-base hits) and Reid Roper (.226, 15 extra-base hits), the offense enters 2014 with far more questions than answers. Among them: What will be its identity?

Said Kerian: “We’ve talked about that multiple times — how we’re going to have to scrap (for) runs because we lose many RBI hitters — the Parrs, Hohl — so I think we’re going to have to bunt runners over, steal bases and hopefully get that big hit when we need it. And our defense is going to have to play big, too, behind our pitchers.”

In turn, more of a burden is likely to fall on the pitching staff while a revamped and largely unproven batting attack attempts to establish itself.

“We’ll look to the pitching staff to get the job done early on until (the batters) find their niche,” Drasen Johnson said. “We’re putting a lot of pressure on ourself because we need to allow them to feel confident at the plate without having to score 10 runs at a time. So, obviously, we’re doing our best to keep (opponent) run-scoring as low as possible.”

Penned up

With Bryan Roberts gone, 2013 set-up man Ronnie Muck moves into the role of co-closer. The senior right-hander is coming off by far the best season of his career, going 3-1 with a 2.70 ERA in 19 appearances while earning a couple of saves.

That last fact indicates Muck is capable of handling the unique pressure of the critical job of closer. And he was particularly adept last season at limiting the damage. Of the 26 hits Muck allowed, four went for extra bases — and all were doubles.

As he has the previous two seasons, Reid Roper also will be used at times in closing situations. The Harrisburg native converted all five of his save opportunities last spring and has eight in his career.

Hartleb is upbeat about his options throughout the relief corps. With five left-handers joining eight right-handed pitchers in the ’pen, the UI coach can choose to be aggressive with situational matchups.

“I feel really good about going to the bullpen and being able to get a quality person on the mound,” he said.

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