Illinois 2008 overall record: 30-23, Big Ten record 16-15
The University of Illinois Fighting Illini are coming off of a 4th place finish in the 2008 Big Ten regular season, qualifying for the Big Ten Tournament where the top six finishers play, before falling to Indiana 14-7 in the double elimination tournament.
It’s no surprise Illinois’ season ended in a high scoring game, as they finished second in the conference in batting with a .335 team average in 56 games. In fact, Illinois was quite the offensive team, finishing in the top 4 in numerous offensive categories including 3rd in runs at 405, 3rd in hits at 630, 3rd in doubles with 111, 3rd in RBI with 366, t-3rd in BB with 251, 1st in OBP at .412, 2nd in stolen bases with 101, while finishing 3rd in stolen base attempts with 133.
Though the Illini put up gaudy offensive numbers in 2008, a similar output might be a bit difficult, but not far off. CF Kyle Hudson was selected in the 5th round of the 2008 draft by the Baltimore Orioles, after hitting .398, posting a .498 OBP, and stealing 40 of 49 bags. Replacing one offensive force is usually doable, unfortunately there is a need to replace their top two offensive leaders as the teams primary DH Daniel Webb exhausted his eligibility with a senior season that saw him hit .391 with 6 home runs, knock in 46 runs, and slug .531.
Very few Big Ten programs can sustain the loss of their top two offensive producers, especially when they perform at the level of Webb and Hudson, but Coach Dan Hartleb has roster full of talent where a significant drop off probably won’t occur. Expected to lead the way offensively will be the team’s lone returning outfielder in Sophomore Casey McMurray who in 2008 was name a Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American. The leftfielder had no problem making the transition from high school baseball to the collegiate level as he pieced together a freshman season that saw him hit .331 at the plate, drive in 24 runs on the strength of 12 doubles.
McMurray won’t be the only Illini expected to carry the load, providing plenty of help will be two Second-Team All Big Ten middle infielders in Junior Shortstop Brandon Wikoff and Senior Second basemen Joe Bonadonna. Both Wikoff and Bonadonna started all 56 games for Illinois and are coming off of 2008 seasons where they hit .369 and .356 respectively, each accounted for 12 doubles and 1 home run, and the duo combined to steal 37 of 44 bases. Wikoff lead the team with 61 RBI, and while Bonadonna finished second in runs scored with 47.
Just when one thinks the Illini can’t possibly have even more offensive firepower returning, joining Wikoff and Bonadonna in the infield is Senior Third basemen Dominic Altobelli who hit .329 with 4 home runs, and 38 RBI and Junior Catcher Aaron Johnson (.306, 5, 29). Rounding out Illinois offensively, Junior Mike Giller (.239, 6 RBI) is expected to fight for a vacant First base position, along with Senior Nick Stockwell (.299, 11, 1), both will see time throughout the season as the teams DH.
With the offensive numbers Illinois put up, scoring more than 7 runs a game, one can ask, how does that team finish just 4th in the Big Ten, and a mere 6 games over .500? The answer as you guess is pitching. In 2008 the Illini had a collective 6.44 ERA which ranked 8th out of the 10 Big Ten teams. The 248 strike outs placed them next to last, as did the 48 home runs allowed. Leading the league was the 130 doubles allowed and 73 hit batters. If the team wants to take the next step and become Big Ten Champions as they were in 2005, pitching and depth need improved, a few players appear that they are ready to step up.
Every pitcher who saw action out of the bullpen returns in 2009 for the Illini. Senior Ben Resser appeared in 23 games and had a team high 5 saves. With a 3-2 record, and team low 4.04 ERA, Resser is expected to become the full time closer, after 4 Illini collected a save in ’08. Resser limited opposing hitters to a team low .250 batting average against, was even better with runners on holding opponents to a .239 average, allowed just 1 home run in his 35.2 innings pitched, and struck out 26.
Joining Resser in the bullpen will be junior Mike Sterk, sophomore Nick Chmielewski, and Billy Barrett. The right-handed Sterk appeared in 20 games, second most on the team behind Resser, finishing with a 4.88 ERA in 31.1 innings. Barrett and Chmielewski struggled at times rotating between midweek starter and relief pitcher in 2008. For both free passes were issues as Barrett put 23 runners on via walk while Chmielewski threw 24 base on balls, also hitting 11 batters. The extra batters Chmielewski allowed negated his .270 batting average against which was second-best on the team. Both will need finer control to help Resser and Sterk finish out a bull-pen that should not blow many leads with the offense Illinois has.
Before the ball is passed onto the bull-pen, the starters toe the mound. Taking the hill at week in and week at Illinois Field will be faces Illini fans are accustomed to seeing. Three of the four weekend starters from last season return, and with the Big Ten changing their schedule format to three 9-inning games this season, Coach Hartleb and staff should have no problem finding their weekend rotation.
Junior Kevin Mason will anchor the staff coming off a season that saw him go 8-2, including a complete game 3-2 victory over Ohio State in the Big Ten Tournament. In his 74.1 innings pitched Mason did allow 45 earned runs to cross the plate for a 5.42 ERA. Mason showed solid control, allow 19 walks, but hit batters again came to hurt the Illini as Mason like Chmielewski hit 11 batters. Mason’s 41 strike outs are the most of the returning pitchers. If that number can go up, with the number of free runners and home runs (8) go down, Mason can improve on his 8-2 mark and become one of the better Big Ten pitchers.
The hit batters theme continues as Senior Aaron Martin, who is expected to compete for a weekend spot with Mason, plunked 10 batters of his own. Though Martin with 4-7, he received a decision in 11 of his 12 starts, both led the team. Martin was able to manage games just enough before the bullpen could be called on, average 5.5 innings per start, a durable arm, Martin is needed sharpen his control, and step-up to provide Illinois with a 1-2 punch.
Fighting for the last weekend rotation spot will be three pitchers, two who started more 7 and 8 games respectively in ’08 in sophomore Phil Haig and senior Mike Stankiewicz, and freshman Bryan Roberts. Haig tossed 36.1 innings in 10 appearances, striking out 19, walking 14, and allowing 25 earned runs for a 6.19 ERA going 2-3. Stankiewicz went 2-4 in 8 starts over 15 appearances. The senior walked 14 like Haig, sat down 20 batters via the strike out, and allowed 40 earned runs for a 6.67. Roberts is coming off of a solid fall, which caught the eye of the coaching staff, and has no issue being a freshman competing for a starting spot.
Overall Illinois returns a team full of experience and tons of potential. Offensively the Illini are expected to compete with Indiana as the top run producing team in the league, they can hit for average, are aggressive on the base paths, and have underrated power. The question for Illinois will again come down to do they have enough pitching? Playing in Illinois in early April can cool even the hottest bats; a strong rotation is needed for Illinois to compete for a league championship. Solid defense will limit the chances opposing teams will have to score, but defense can only do so much when your pitchers struggle to keep the ball in the park and off the batters uniform. McMurray is a star in the making, but a star needs to shine in the rotation for Coach Hartleb.
Chris Webb is a writer for The Buckeye Nine which covers Ohio State Baseball. He will be covering the Big Ten conference for our site this year as he will be doing a season preview on each team and writing weekly previews/recaps. You can check out his site by clicking here.