Comia's versatility pays off for Illini

Comia's versatility pays off for Illini

CHAMPAIGN — When Illinois signed Branden Comia in November 2017, it was with the idea the Orland Park native could play right away this spring. 

Even on a veteran team.

Ranked as the No. 4 overall prospect in Illinois and No. 13 shortstop nationally by Prep Baseball Report, Comia had enough versatility he could wind up helping the Illini in the outfield during his freshman season. 

Illinois coach Dan Hartleb wasn’t closing any potential doors.

Circumstance ultimately dictated the first season of Comia’s Illinois career, and the 5-foot-10, 195-pound Carl Sandburg graduate spent it playing where he projects long term — up the middle of the Illini defense.

Comia started the first 28 games of the season at second base as 2018 Gold Glove winner Michael Massey was limited to designated hitter duties because of a back injury. 

Now, Comia has spent the last seven games starting at shortstop after Ben Troike broke his thumb in the series clincher against Indiana on May 4. It might not be how Hartleb expected to use Comia this season, but hitting leadoff and playing shortstop is where the freshman standout will be when Illinois opens Big Ten tournament play at 9 a.m. Wednesday against Maryland at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Neb.

“We thought he had the opportunity to come in and play somewhere,” Hartleb said. “We thought he was a really good athlete and would have an opportunity to come in and be a backup guy somewhere and possibly start in some other positions. He’s done an unbelievable job for us.”

Comia knew he might wind up playing behind either Massey or Troike this season. He’s known both of his eventual Illini teammates since he was in the eighth grade. Their respective decisions to attend Illinois influenced his as he was first commit of Illinois’ 2018 class when he pledged to the Illini in February 2016. 

“They were a big reason in me coming here because I knew they’d always help me out,” Comia said. “I just thought I’d come in and try to play wherever I could and try to get as much time as I could.”

That turned out to be 38 starts in 42 games for Comia, where he’s produced for Illinois. He’s batting .259 on the season with four home runs and 20 RBI and has a .966 fielding percentage with just six errors.

Some advice Comia received from Illinois’ veterans — including Massey and Troike — has helped. 

Don’t try to do too much. Having a consistent role, Hartleb added, has helped Comia remain fairly consistent throughout his freshman season.

“Sometimes when you’re forced into a situation and know you’re going to go out there every day, it almost takes some of the pressure off of you,” Hartleb said. “If you’re not sure if you’re going to be in or out sometimes and you feel like you have to get a hit every time — feel like you have to be perfect to get yourself in the lineup — I think guys put more pressure on themselves. He’s been in, for him, a good situation where he’s basically known he’s going out there on a regular basis.”

Comia’s time at shortstop — and the top of the Illinois lineup — the past seven games has seen him raise his batting average 27 points. He had a pair of three-hit games in the Illini’s final two regular season Big Ten series against Purdue and Michigan State and hit two home runs to clinch the series win against the Spartans last weekend.

“Me and Coach Hartleb have talked a lot about swinging at more pitches in the zone and knowing the zone and staying within that zone,” Comia said. “I think that definitely helped a lot — staying off a lot of stuff in the dirt and up. That was probably the biggest change I’ve made so far.”

The home stretch of the regular season saw Comia striking out less frequently, drawing a few more walks (three in one game against Purdue) and utilizing the entire field at the plate. A season’s worth of work has pushed him from simply being a dead pull hitter.

“The only thing I’ve told him is he’s got to be more selective at the plate,” Hartleb said. “If you look at his charts throughout the year, everything was pull, pull, pull. It’s very difficult to hit good breaking balls on the outer part of the plate when you’re trying to pull or have that kind of swing. He’s made a major adjustment to use the whole field. … Early in the year it would be like he pulled two or three hits and his strikeout total would be six and no walks (in a series). He’s made great progress.”