UI baseball storylines ahead of 2017 opener

UI baseball storylines ahead of 2017 opener

Dan Hartleb’s 12th Illinois baseball team opens its season at 2 p.m. Friday against Milwaukee in Beaumont, Texas, as part of the Lamar Cardinal Classic. Sports editor MATT DANIELS offers five storylines before Friday’s first pitch:

Ready for starting debut
If Luke Shilling get through a full three innings in Friday’s season opener, the sophomore right-hander from Clarkston, Mich., will have surpassed his entire workload from 2016. The 6-foot-5, 260-pound Clarkson is slated to get the start on the mound for the Illini against Milwaukee after he threw 2 2/3 innings last season, compiling a 6.75 earned-run average in three relief appearances.

“He’s very capable of being a dominant pitcher,” Hartleb said. “He can hit 96 mph (with his fastball) with a plus breaking ball. Last year, he had some arm problems, and we couldn’t get him out there as much as we’d like to. Towards the end of the season, he made some strides. I’m hopeful he can be a staple in our rotation.”

Young arms on display
Illinois will trot out other inexperienced pitchers this weekend, with right-hander Quinten Sefcik (0-0, 6.46 ERA in 151/3 innings last season, including two starts) set to start against Milwaukee in Saturday’s noon tilt and true freshman Ty Weber making his college debut at 10 a.m. Sunday against Lamar.

Sophomore right-hander Cole Bellair, an All-Big Ten freshman pick last season, is slated to get the ball for the Illini’s 4 p.m. game Saturday against Lamar, with the Lockport native the most experienced starter the Illini have after he compiled a 2-3 record last season in 591/3 innings, including nine starts

“They’re going to face some better talent than maybe they’ve faced in their lives,” Hartleb said. “They’ll go through some tough times, but I think we can be very competitive this year. I think the key is to be patient, keep my mouth shut at times and hope I still have hair next year.”

Tough schedule early on
After this weekend, the Illini will face three more road trips before their home opener at Illinois Field against Northern Illinois, slated for a 4 p.m. first pitch on March 14.

Illinois heads to Corpus Christi, Texas, next weekend to face Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, Houston and Missouri over a three-day span before traveling to Boca Raton, Fla., March 3-5 to play Florida Atlantic.

The Illini then wrap up the road swing with a three-game series at defending College World Series champion Coastal Carolina from March 10-12.

“This is the first time it’s a three-game series against (Coastal Carolina), but I really like and enjoy playing there,” Hartleb said. “Houston was a top-10 team most of last year. Florida Atlantic is perennially a top-20 team.

“The draft has put us in a position that I didn’t really want to be in this year with the youth going up against that competition, but we won’t back down. It’s really important we play good people. We could build a very good RPI this year. In the north, that’s the only way you get into the NCAA regional without winning the Big Ten tournament.”

League keeps improving
Speaking of the Big Ten tournament, the Illini hope to be among the eight teams to take part in the league’s annual tournament that will take place at Bart Kaufman Field in Bloomington, Ind., this spring.

Illinois missed out on the 2016 tournament — held at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Neb., which will serve as the tournament site from 2018 to 2022 — after finishing in a tie for eighth and missing out on the conference tournament because of tiebreakers.

When the Big Ten on Wednesday released its preseason top six teams, picked by the league’s coaches, Illinois was not among those in the top half of the league. Maryland topped the preseason poll, with Michigan second and Nebraska third.

“The league has really grown,” Hartleb said, citing the Big Ten Network as a key reason for the surge. “It’s made people aware the quality of baseball we play. We’ve had teams move through the NCAA tournament, which helps everybody. Most schools in the Big Ten have upgraded their facilities, which is really important. We seem to get more and more good players in the conference.”

Looking ahead, back
Youth is a refrain that’s been heard often regarding the Illini these last two seasons. That’s what happens when a program loses two first-round Major League Baseball draft picks, like the Illini have the last two years with pitchers Cody Sedlock (Baltimore Orioles) in 2016 and Tyler Jay (Minnesota Twins) in 2015.

“The thing I’m so proud about with our program is those guys weren’t drafted coming out of high school,” Hartleb said. “They worked themselves into a first-round situation. As we go out and recruit, you can show guys come into a northern program and work their way into situations where they are high draft picks.”

In fact, only 10 players remain on this year’s roster from the 2015 team that won 50 games, a Big Ten title and an NCAA regional that Hartleb hoped would spur an uptick in recruiting. Other mitigating factors, however, had quite the profound effect.

“The year it really should have impacted us from a positive standpoint, we had so many other negative things going on with the university, it was kind of a wash,” Hartleb said. “People have short memories, so it doesn’t help you as much as you think. At the same time, the coaches and some of the parents that saw that run, it helps you get into their house. There’s been some boost from it. I was hoping there would be more, but some of it you can’t control.”