Sports copy editor JOE VOZZELLI JR. offers three thoughts on the upcoming Illinois baseball season, which begins at 11:30 a.m. Friday in Winston Salem, N.C., where the Illini play Milwaukee.
WORK IN PROGRESS
That’s how Illinois coach Dan Hartleb described the makeup of his team’s pitching rotation entering the 2020 season. A lot has changed with Andy Fisher and Cyrillo Watson no longer on the roster. That duo combined to start 29 games last season for the 36-21 Illini. Longtime pitching coach Drew Dickinson also left the Illinois program in the offseason for the same role at Virginia. Mark Allen takes over for Dickinson after Allen spent the previous nine seasons in professional baseball, mostly recently as the San Francisco Giants’ pitching coordinator last season. Ty Weber gets the ball on opening day for Illinois against Milwaukee. “He’s a very mature pitcher,” Hartleb said of the senior right-hander who started 14 games for the Illini in 2019, posting a 4-3 record and 3.28 ERA. “Fourth year being a starter for us, he’s got great command of himself. He’s got great command of when he’s going out on the field. He’s got that presence about him.” Hartleb said right-handers Ty Rybarczyk and Aidan Maldonado will start Saturday and Sunday, respectively, against Seton Hall and No. 18 Wake Forest.
WHO’S ON FIRST?
In 2019, that was Centennial graduate Kellen Sarver. The then-redshirt freshman, after all, started 55 games at first base last season for Illinois. The 6-foot-2 infielder drew a team-best 35 walks while hitting .269 with four home runs, nine doubles and 29 RBI. Sarver hinted this week he may be in line for starts at catcher in 2020. Jacob Campbell and Jeff Korte basically split catching duties 50-50 last season, with Campbell making 29 starts and Korte behind the plate starting for 28 games. Campbell, now a sophomore, is coming off a season in which he hit only .196 with two home runs and 11 RBI while Korte exhausted his eligibility after being a .226 hitter as a senior with three home runs and 23 RBI. “I definitely focused more on my catching,” Sarver said of his offseason work. “That’s all I did over the summer. I know I played at first base a lot last season, but am hoping to get more time at catcher this season. Hoping to play both positions.”
Four of Illinois’ first nine opponents were ranked in D1baseball.com’s preseason top 25: No. 18 Wake Forest (Sunday), No. 20 Texas A&M (Feb. 28), No. 22 Oklahoma State (Feb. 29) and No. 14 UCLA (March 1). Those four teams combined to finish 162-81 (.667) last season. The Illini will play the Aggies, Cowboys and Bruins on three consecutive days during the Frisco Classic at Dr. Pepper Ballpark, the home of the Class AA Frisco RoughRiders in Texas. “I love playing good people,” Hartleb said. “Going to the ballpark in those situations, it’s fun. If you want to play for a national championship, if you want to play well at the national level and have a high RPI, you have to play good people. We’re not going to back down from that. I look forward to going into those games and making a name for ourselves.” Illinois’ first home game is set for 4 p.m. on March 3 against Chicago State at Illinois Field.