Spillane shows off complete game

Spillane shows off complete game

Hear from pitching coach Drew Dickinson Tuesday at 5:10 on WDWS.

CHAMPAIGN — Bren Spillane finished a home run short of the cycle Feb. 23 against Coastal Carolina. The Illinois junior got it the next day, with what was then a game-tying grand slam against West Virginia in the Illini's trip to Conway, S.C.

Illinois lost both of those games — two of three two-run losses in the first two weekends of the season.

Spillane has kept hitting in the interim. The Illini (6-3) have started winning, too, and are now ranked No. 25 in the country by Collegiate Baseball Newspaper.

That includes the 6-foot-4, 210-pound first baseman going 4 of 11 with two doubles, two runs scored and three RBI as Illinois swept No. 11 UCLA, Arizona and Washington to win the Big Ten/Pac-12 Challenge this past weekend at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

Illinois' win streak now stands at five, and Spillane's production at the plate has been a key reason. He hit a game-tying double in the seventh inning against Arizona and drew a bases-loaded walk in the eighth to drive in what turned out to be the winning run. An RBI double against Washington bumped the Illini's lead to five runs.

Spillane, eventually, started abusing the tarp erected as the right field wall at U.S. Bank Stadium.

"I was getting attacked on the outer third of the plate the whole weekend," Spillane said. "At first I wasn't making very many adjustments — I was pulling off pitches — but I finally started hitting it that way. It was kind of cool seeing it go off the tarp."

Spillane broke into the Illinois lineup last season as a sophomore, batting .295 with five home runs, six doubles and 23 RBI in 36 games. Now a full-time starter — with a switch from third to first base — the Wheeling native and 34th-round MLB draft pick in 2015 leads the Illini with a .382 average, five doubles and 10 RBI.

"I knew I had it in me," Spillane said. "It's just a matter of going out and showing it."

Illinois coach Dan Hartleb's move of putting Spillane in the cleanup spot in the lineup coincided with the start of the Illini's winning streak.

Second baseman Michael Massey, a freshman All-American last season, has also benefitted, going 9 of 21 with six RBI hitting behind Spillane the last five games.

"I like hitting with guys in scoring position," Massey said. "We all know it, all the fans know it and everybody around college baseball knows the type of talent (Spillane) has. He's really put it together this year."

Spillane's move to first base after playing in the outfield last season and starting this year at third allowed Hartleb to put what he said he considered the best nine players in the lineup and on the field. While Spillane hasn't played much first base in his life, he said it's been a smooth transition, and the Illinois defense has continued to flourish, ranking second in the country in fielding percentage (.994) with just two errors.

"The biggest part is mentality," Hartleb said. "Some guys, if you move them positions, they basically shut down on you. Their ego is so big that it's like, 'I shouldn't be the one being moved.'

"They don't ever think about the team. Bren, he just wants to be on the field. He wants to do what's best for the team. He hasn't let that affect him at any point. He's given us quality at bats and been a great team player."