Spillane's hitting tear powers Illinois baseball

Spillane's hitting tear powers Illinois baseball

CHAMPAIGN — Almost 13 years had passed since any Illinois baseball player achieved what Bren Spillane did Tuesday.

And the Illini's starting first baseman was just the third athlete in program history to reach this goal.

But when Spillane was informed prior to Tuesday's practice that he'd won the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association Player of the Week honor, the 6-foot-5, 210-pound hitting machine for the Illini maintained a calm, collected presence.

That only makes sense, considering such an approach is what has Spillane receiving this recognition.

"It's a good feeling," the junior said after adding to a haul that includes four other Big Ten and national honors over the past two weeks. "It's just trying to balance the highs and the lows and trying to stay even-keel throughout the whole process."

Spillane's hitting tear for the Illini (16-5, 3-0 Big Ten) has coach Dan Hartleb's program carrying a six-game win streak into its first Big Ten home series of the season. Illinois is slated to host Iowa (14-8, 1-1) at 6 p.m. today in the first of a three-game series at Illinois Field.

Spillane's power barrage started with a three-homer output on March 17 against Southern Illinois, which resulted in six RBI. Spillane followed up that effort by hitting .643 across four contests the following week, during which he knocked three homers and drove in 10 runs.

"I don't know we've ever had anybody that's gone on this type of run, just because he's had the power numbers to go with it," Illinois coach Dan Hartleb said. "To have a guy that's hit this well with this type of power, he's far and away the top power guy we've ever had since I've coached here."

Add in the two solo home runs Spillane hit during Wednesday's 9-6 home win against Concordia Chicago, and he carries a .474 average with 11 home runs and 33 RBI into today, leading the Big Ten in all three categories, all while swiping a team-best 12 stolen bases for the Illini.

"It always helps when you're helping the team win in general," said Spillane, whose offense has proven critical to the Illini's No. 22 ranking from Baseball America. "All the awards are cool, but at the end of the day, it comes down to winning."

Spillane joined Dusty Bensko and J.R. Kyes as the only Illini to ever net the NCBWA's top weekly award, a plaudit both of those players received during the 2005 campaign.

"That's always a special award," Hartleb said. "When you're in a situation where you're competing against so many players across the country, and so many great players garner that award, it's something really special."

And it's not as if Spillane has had the opportunity to focus specifically on his plate approach.

In addition to dealing with a myriad of injuries in his first two collegiate seasons that limited the Wheeling native's ability, Spillane also has switched from making catches in the outfield to receiving throws at first base.

This was done, according to Hartleb, so Illinois could field its best possible lineup. Regardless of the reason, the switch hasn't bothered Spillane.

"I played a little bit in the summer and got used to it," he said. "It's just the little stuff like bunt plays and relays and stuff like that, but it's comfortable now."

Things are a little more straightforward at the dish for Spillane, who said he's emphasizing better pitch selection in order to get the best from his appearances. In addition to making consistent contact, Spillane drew five walks over last week's four games.

It hasn't mattered to Spillane how he's contributing to the Illini's success, though. He's just glad to be on the diamond and pushing Illinois toward a possible first NCAA tournament appearance since its 50-win season in 2015 that culminated with the program's first-ever appearance in the NCAA Super Regionals.

"That's the only thing you want to do when you get here," Spillane said. "It feels really good that (my work is) starting to pay off."