Walton glad he stuck with Illini

Walton glad he stuck with Illini

CHAMPAIGN — Adam Walton has had to contend with plenty this spring.

Like an up-and-down batting average, peaking at .306 three weekends into the season and dipping to .232 on April 9 after an 0-for-8 showing in a doubleheader against Iowa.

Some defensive miscues, too. The Illinois shortstop has 14 errors through 38 games to date. That’s the same number he totaled in 61 games last season.

And when the redshirt junior started to make progress with his swing and glove — going 5 for 10 at the plate and posting zero errors in the field in a mid-April weekend series against Saint Louis — an oblique injury sidelined him for part of last weekend’s Ohio State series and the first game of Friday’s doubleheader against No. 19 Minnesota.

Walton was back in the lineup for Friday’s nightcap, a 2-0 Illinois victory against the Big Ten leaders, and was able to pick up where he left off in the Saint Louis series. He went 2 for 3 at the plate and was flawless in the field.

“Before the injury, I feel like I was seeing the ball really well,” Walton said. “I had a really good weekend against Saint Louis and an OK midweek game against Eastern (Illinois). Then the injury started kind of nagging against Ohio State and took a step back. Now that I’m getting healthy again, it felt good (Friday) and felt good to put some swings on the ball.”

Count Doug Hayes among those happy to have Walton back in the Illinois lineup. The redshirt sophomore left-hander is a groundball pitcher. He put his defense to work Friday night in his complete-game shutout of Minnesota, with Walton patrolling plenty of infield territory.

“We’re used to him playing every game,” Hayes said. “He’s a vocal leader and a leader by example, so he’s very important to have in the lineup.”

Just being back on the field after missing time was the big thing for Walton. He started all 61 games last season at shortstop and 37 straight to end the 2014 season once he took over the position.

“It’s sore, but I don’t want to miss games if I don’t have to,” he said about his injured side. “The plan was to play one (Friday). We thought two might be too much off the bat, but it’s great to be back out there.

“I couldn’t stop smiling. There’s really nothing better than being able to put on Illinois across your chest and be out there and play for these guys.”

That’s one of the main reasons he’s back in Champaign this season. Walton parlayed first-team All-Big Ten honors into a 20th-round selection by the Baltimore Orioles in last year’s MLB draft. While fellow Class of 2013 teammates Tyler Jay, Kevin Duchene and Ryan Nagle turned pro, Walton, along with Jason Goldstein and Nick Blackburn, opted for another year in orange and blue.

It’s a decision Walton still feels 100 percent comfortable with — even going through what is, statistically, his worst full season at Illinois.

“I don’t regret it for a second,” he said. “I’m going to graduate in a couple weeks. I get to play on this team again, play in front of the Illinois fans again. Hopefully I get a chance to go to the minors after this year.

“We’ll see what happens. There’s not a day that goes by that I regret it. I love this school, I love being here, and I couldn’t imagine not being here.”

As for his up-and-down season, Walton understands just how fickle baseball can be. He’s realized he can’t always be great, but said there’s still time to turn around his season with 11 regular-season games remaining on the Illini schedule — starting with today’s 6 p.m. tilt at GCS Ballpark in Sauget against Missouri.

“It’s been tough. It’s not what I was expecting, especially with all the hard work I put in this offseason,” Walton said. “I thought I was going to have a great year, and there’s still time left to have a great year.

“It’s baseball. It’s a game of failure. The best people in baseball only succeed three out of 10 times. Honestly, I think having some failure is going to really help me down the road, being able to deal with that and overcome the adversity.”

That’s the kind of approach Illinois coach Dan Hartleb is looking for — particularly from one of the few experienced players on an otherwise young team. Hartleb expects his veterans, like Walton, to get the big hits and make the big plays.

Even when baseball can be a “cruel game.”

“The guys that are mentally tough and don’t let those things bother them are the ones that eventually end up performing at a high level,” Hartleb said. “Hopefully Adam’s in that situation where he keeps getting better as we get to the end of the year, when it really matters.”


Catching up with the draftees
While Adam Walton was among a small group of Illinois baseball players who returned to Champaign-Urbana for the 2016 season despite being chosen in the 2015 MLB Draft, six now-former Illini started their professional careers. A look at how each of them is faring so far this year:

Tyler Jay, P    Minnesota (1-6)    A-Advanced    Fort Myers Miracle    19.1 IP, 1 W, 2 L, 5.12 ERA
Kevin Duchene, P    Oakland (5-158)    A-Short Season    Vermont Lake Monsters    Season starts June 17
David Kerian, 1B    Washington (9-284)    A-Short Season    Auburn Doubledays    Season starts June 17
Rob McDonnell, P    L.A. Dodgers (25-762)    Rookie    Ogden Raptors    Season starts June 17
Drasen Johnson, P    Colorado (26-767)    Class A    Asheville Tourists    12.0 IP, 1 W, 0 L, 5.25 ERA
Ryan Nagle, OF    Pittsburgh (27-817)    Class A    West Virginia Power    23 G, 21 H, 1 HR, 9 RBI