CHAMPAIGN — The Illinois outfield was noticeably quieter when center fielder Zac Taylor was on the bench with an ankle injury for a 14-game stretch earlier this spring.
The redshirt senior is fairly vocal — whether it’s directing traffic from his outfield spot or celebrating a good play.
Illinois managed without Taylor for most of March and its first series of April.
Freshman Cam McDonald shifted to center field. Regular designated hitter Michael Michalak brushed off his glove and took over in left field, with Andrew Dyke occasionally spelling him.
The Illini even went 9-5 in those games with the only real blemish the three-game sweep it suffered in its opening Big Ten series at Iowa.
But Taylor’s presence was missed. Like his leadership in center field and how much of the outfield he can cover. Or his bat in the middle of the Illinois lineup.
After a sit out season in 2017 following his transfer back home from Houston and a solid, but not overwhelming, campaign in 2018, Taylor has been indispensable for Illinois (36-19). That will continue as the Illini begin NCAA regional play at 3 p.m. today with an opening-round game against Clemson (34-24) in Oxford, Miss.
"He’s one of those guys that really controls the outfield," Illinois coach Dan Hartleb said. "He commands it. When you have great outfields, you usually have a center fielder that can be a leader out there not only with his physical abilities but what he does from a talking standpoint and positioning. With his experience, he’s done a great job of that."
Part of Taylor’s experience is that season he didn’t play after transferring following his sophomore season at Houston. The Downers Grove South graduate wanted to get back to the Midwest, and he was sold on Illinois after one visit and the recruiting pitch from the Illini coaches.
Not playing, though, took some adjusting.
"It was definitely different," Taylor said. "Early on in my baseball career I had no idea that was coming. There’s adversity that some player has to face at every point in their career. I think I adapted to it pretty well.
"Sitting out that season wasn’t the funnest at all — having to watch the team go out there and play knowing I wouldn’t be able to play with them — but I also think it helped me be ready and more motivated for the next season and this season as well."
United we sit
What really helped Taylor was that he wasn’t alone. Pitchers Sean Leland and Andy Fisher had transferred from Louisville and Eastern Illinois, respectively, and were also sitting out the 2017 season.
The trio were roommates, and that helped even further through their joint experience of sitting and watching instead of playing and competing.
"It was pretty cool going in and not being alone in that situation," Leland said. "Being able to be brothers with someone going through the exact same stuff as you — redshirt lifts, watching your team play — it was great having someone alongside to go through it with you."
Taylor and his transfer cohorts went through all of the practices and scrimmages during the season. They were in the dugout for every home game. But every weekend road trip meant the same thing. Staying home.
Not that they weren’t putting in more work.
"I still remember we’d be pulling out on a Thursday to go on a trip and those guys would be walking in to get work done on their own," Hartleb said. "We’d tell them what they needed to do, but you’re not here watching what they do. It was important to the group. They came for a reason. They knew they had to sit out. They knew it was a year to get better and not just a year off."
Taylor’s first season at Illinois, though, wasn’t without its struggles. Hartleb pushed him. Hard.
"When he came in his first year, there were a lot of adjustments he needed to make," the Illini coach said. "He needed to do a better job with some things classroom-wise. Needed to mature in some areas.
"I was tough on him that first year. He went through about an eight-week period where I never let him hit live. I didn’t know if he would do what he needed to do to get on the field on a regular basis. I wasn’t going to waste time, and he needed to understand I don’t mess around in those areas."
Consider that message received.
Taylor started all 53 games in center field during the 2018 season and became just the ninth player in Illinois history with 10 home runs and 10 stolen bases in a single season.
"He’s done things I’ve asked," Hartleb said. "My whole philosophy is when you take care of things off the field, you have a great chance to be successful on the field. He’s done a much, much better job and done a good job of growing up and showing some leadership and doing the right things."
Eye on the prize
Despite the good that came with Taylor’s Illinois debut in 2018, he struggled at the plate in Big Ten play. That saw him drop to the 36th round of the MLB Draft where the Minnesota Twins selected him with the 1,084th overall pick.
The allure of professional baseball was there, but Taylor ultimately made the decision to return to Illinois for his final season.
"I think the biggest decision for me on making my decision to come back was knowing I would be coming back to a great ball club," Taylor said. "Knowing we’d have a great ball club again and have a chance to make a regional.
"Hopefully I’ll have my chance again this year (in the draft), but the ultimate goal is to win. Obviously, I want to get drafted and keep playing as long as possible at the next level, but what it comes down to for me right now is what we’re doing as a team here and winning at a high level."
Hartleb and assistant coach Adam Christ spoke with Taylor after he was drafted last summer. There was no pressure to make one decision or another, but Hartleb said the goal was to help Taylor understand the whole process and what being a 36th round pick means. That’s not necessarily a round MLB teams look at for sure-fire big leaguers.
"Being drafted that late, there’s no doubt in my mind he made the right decision," Hartleb said. "They’ll look at him differently if he’s drafted higher this season. He’s just been a better player this year. You can hang your hat on those stats and what he’s done. … There’s no doubt that he’s helped himself this year."
Taylor ranks second for Illinois with a .331 batting average to go with 10 home runs, 12 doubles and 20 stolen bases. That’s all in addition to the smothering defense he plays in center field. The cumulative production is what his teammates got a sneak preview of during that 2017 season.
"He was all over the field, covering a lot of ground and making a lot of throws," senior right fielder Jack Yalowitz said. "He was really fast. It was really exciting to see him come in. Right away you saw the tools pretty quickly."
That’s what Illinois was missing during Taylor’s 14 games on the bench this spring recovering from his ankle injury.
"There was definitely a difference because I was in center and he’s way faster than me," McDonald said with a laugh. "It was a lot harder to manufacture runs because losing a guy like that in the middle of the lineup really isn’t replaceable. Other guys had to step up and we did step up, but he’s a really good player and hard to replace."
A full look at the slate for this weekend’s NCAA regional at Swayze Field in Oxford, Miss., with the Illinois baseball team returning to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2015:
Game 1 — Illinois (36-19) vs. Clemson (34-24), 3 p.m.
Game 2 — Ole Miss (37-25) vs. Jacksonville State (37-21), 7 p.m.
Game 3 — Loser Game 1 vs. Loser Game 2, noon
Game 4 — Winner Game 1 vs. Winner Game 2, 6 p.m.
Game 5 — Winner Game 3 vs. Loser Game 4, 2 p.m.
Game 6 — Winner Game 4 vs. Winner Game 5, 8 p.m.
Game 7 — Winner Game 6 vs. Loser Game 6, 6 p.m. (if necessary)
NOTE: Regional winner will move on to face winner of Arkansas Regional