Senior Ronnie Muck is one of only two seniors on young Illini squad, which will look to make its third regional in the last four years.
Feb. 7, 2014
Pitching Returns, Holes to Fill in the Field
Following its second NCAA Regional appearance in the last three years, Illinois will feature a new look in 2014 with only two seniors on the roster compared to its veteran squad a year ago. The Illini lost their entire outfield and left side of the infield from last year's postseason lineup, but will return the full pitching rotation from their Big Ten Tournament and NCAA Regional appearances. Ninth-year head coach Dan Hartleb will be without many familiar faces from recent years at Illinois Field. Three position players were drafted in center fielder Justin Parr, left fielder Jordan Parr and shortstop Thomas Lindauer, while right fielder Davis Hendrickson and four-year starting third baseman Brandon Hohl both graduated.
On the other hand, UI's pitching staff, which posted its lowest ERA (3.76) in 37 years, is back in full force with its weekend rotation returning sophomore Kevin Duchene, junior John Kravetz and sophomore Ryan Castellanos. Only a pair of pitchers were lost to graduation in four-year starter Kevin Johnson, who was sidelined at the end of 2013 due to an arm injury, and closer Bryan Roberts, who wrapped up his career tied for the third-most saves in school history.
By the numbers, here is a breakdown of what Illinois will return in 2014. The Illini return 81.2 percent of their innings pitched (399 of 491), 77.8 percent of their strikeouts (246 of 316) and 74.2 percent of their wins (26 of 35). While the majority of the pitching production is back, less than half of the Big Ten's second-ranked offense will take the field in 2014. Illinois will bring back 44 percent of its hits (251 of 571), 43.2 percent of its runs (145 of 336), 40.7 percent of its total bases (320 of 787) and 15.6 percent of its home runs (5 of 32).
A Closer Look at the Starting Staff
Lowest ERA in 37 Years: Last season, pitching coach Drew Dickinson's young staff - which featured two freshmen and a sophomore in the postseason rotation - lowered its ERA by more than a run from 2012 from 4.77 ERA to 3.76 ERA, which ranks as the lowest mark since 1976 (3.43 ERA). His staff nearly boasted a 2:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio (316 K to 162 BB) and held opponents to a .267 average. In 2014, all but two pitchers (Johnson and Roberts) will toe the rubber again for the Illini.
Duchene Continues His Friday Night Role: Sophomore Kevin Duchene, who broke the school record for wins by a freshman with nine last season, will lead the staff heading into 2014. The Joliet, Ill., native assumed the Friday night role for the final month of 2013 when Kevin Johnson went out with an arm injury. His final six starts were as the No. 1 starter and featured a career-best 11-strikeout, two-hit shutout against Penn State that propelled him to Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors. After becoming just the second ever Illini to win the award and being named second-team All-Big Ten, the southpaw capped his stellar rookie season with a quality start in UI's victory over Georgia Tech in the NCAA Nashville Regional. Duchene, who was named a Freshman All-American by Collegiate Baseball, NCBWA, Baseball America and Perfect Game, finished 9-1 with a team-best 2.79 ERA in 2013.
Kravetz Provides the Experience: Junior John Kravetz will be the most experienced starting pitcher in the rotation, as he enters the year back in the No. 2 spot. The Lansing, Ill., native boasts a 13-6 overall record and a team-best 178.1 IP in his first two seasons. The right-hander has been a workhorse for the Illini, making all 29 starts since entering the rotation. During his sophomore season in 2013, he lowered his ERA (4.72 to 4.27) and increased his strikeouts (45 to 52) while finishing with a 5-3 record. He broke the school record for most wins by a freshman with eight in 2012 before Duchene surpassed the mark last year.
Reliever Drasen Johnson Moves into Rotation: Redshirt-junior Drasen Johnson will transition from the bullpen to the starting rotation in 2014. The Chillicothe, Ill., native has made five starts in his career, while the majority of his work has come out of the bullpen with 31 appearances. Last season, he finished 3-1 with a 3.07 ERA in 20 appearances (one start) and totaled 12 strikeouts. In his final 12 appearances, he only allowed one run and 11 hits over 17.2 IP (0.51 ERA) while picking up three wins.
Depth in the Rotation: Sophomore Ryan Castellanos and freshman Cody Sedlock will provide depth for the starting rotation along with being available for long relief. Castellanos won his first two collegiate starts as a freshman and finished 3-2 with a 5.04 ERA in 55.1 IP. He won his first career start at No. 16 Indiana, snapping IU's NCAA-best 18-game winning streak at the time and handing the College World Series-bound Hoosiers their first Big Ten loss of the season. The Davie, Fla., native also started for the Illini at the NCAA Nashville Regional and received a no-decision. Sedlock, who is a freshman from Alleman HS, was ranked the No. 9 player and the No. 5 pitcher in the Class of 2013 in Illinois by Perfect Game USA. He recorded an 8-1 record with 76 strikeouts and a 1.57 ERA in his senior season.
Options at Closer: With the graduation of Bryan Roberts, the Illini will have a new reliever split time in the closer role with Reid Roper. Senior Ronnie Muck will move from the set-up role to the back of the bullpen. Muck has six career saves and converted both of his save chances a year ago. The Park Ridge, Ill., native went 3-1 and notched the second-best ERA in the bullpen with a 2.70 mark in 19 appearances in 2013. Roper, who has started at second base along with closing games the past two years, will again be an option at closer. He turned in the bullpen's best ERA at 2.53 and converted all five of his save chances in 2013, giving the redshirt-junior eight career saves.
Playing the Match-Ups in Relief: Outside of Illinois' starters and closer, UI boasts eight right-handed pitchers and five left-handed pitchers, which will allow for situational match-ups throughout the year. Sophomore southpaw Tyler Jay will be an option in the set-up role after posting a 3.10 ERA in 18 games as a freshman. Fellow veteran left-handers Luke Joyce and Rob McDonnell battled arm injuries last season but both will be back in 2014 and expected to contribute along with the other two lefties: junior Anthony Milazzo and sophomore J.D. Nielsen. Among the right-handers, sophomore Nick Blackburn, who went 2-1 in 10 games last year, and redshirt-sophomore Andrew Mamlic, who allowed one run in 10 innings last season, will be options in relief along with newcomers Matthew James and Ike Greenspon.
Three Position Players Back on the Diamond
All-Big Ten First baseman: Illinois' top returning hitter is junior first baseman David Kerian, who was a first-team All-Big Ten selection after hitting .313 with a home run, 39 RBI, 23 stolen bases and a .390 on-base percentage in 2013. The Dakota Dunes, S.D., native tied the Big Ten lead with 23 steals and had the fewest errors among Big Ten first baseman with five for a .990 fielding percentage during his breakout sophomore season.
Roper Still at Second: Redshirt-junior second baseman Reid Roper is back for his third year at the position. The Harrisburg, Ill., native played in 49 games and hit .266 with three home runs, 21 runs and 22 RBI in 2013. The utility player, who was a Freshman All-American in 2012, also is an option at third base, which would open the door for junior Michael Hurwitz or sophomore Adam Walton at second base.
Behind the Dish: Sophomore Jason Goldstein is back at catcher after being named to the All-Big Ten Freshman Team in 2013. The Highland Park, Ill., native was the first true-freshman to start at Illinois since 1992. He started 42 games in his debut season and led the Big Ten in caught stealing in conference games with 11. He hit .231 with 18 runs and 11 RBI. Redshirt-junior Kelly Norris-Jones is also in the mix at the position after making 13 starts and playing in 23 games in 2013.
Filling in the Holes
Krug Takes over in Center: Junior Will Krug has recovered from the broken arm that sidelined him for the second half of the 2013 season. Krug hit .305 and scored 25 runs in 25 games before suffering the injury on a hit by pitch at Indiana. He started 22 straight games from Feb. 22-April 5 as the Illini leadoff hitter, helping the team to a 17-5 record during that time. The Park Ridge, Ill., native is expected to start in center field, filling the position left by Big Ten Player of the Year Justin Parr.
Corner Outfield Options: Both corner outfield options will be filled by new faces. Freshman Pat McInerney and sophomore Ryan Nagle are expected to compete for the job in left field, while juniors Chase Hainline and Casey Fletcher will vie for the starting job in right field. McInerney earned IHSA Class 3A all-state honors at Benet Academy after hitting .381 with eight home runs and 38 RBI as a senior. Nagle made six starts at first base in 2013, but was primarily used as a pinch-hitter, collecting six hits and five RBI in 22 games. Hainline has come off the bench during his first two seasons, going 5-for-9 in 10 career games as a pinch-hitter. Fletcher was a two-time NJCAA All-American at Kankakee Community College and transferred to Illinois with two seasons of eligibility remaining. He played multiple positions at KCC as an outfielder, second baseman and pitcher.
Left Side of the Infield: Illinois will have to replace first-team All-Big Ten shortstop Thomas Lindauer and four-year starter at third base Brandon Hohl. A pair of redshirt-freshmen could patrol the left side of the infield in shortstop Zack Kolakowski and third baseman Richie Gorski. Freshman Ryne Roper, the 2013 Illinois Gatorade Player of the Year, also will compete for the spot at shortstop, meaning brothers Reid and Ryne could play up the middle for the Illini.
No More Parrs, but Two Ropers
For the first time in five seasons, Illinois will not have a Parr brother (Josh, Justin or Jordan) on the roster. Instead, UI will have a new set of brothers in Reid and Ryne Roper. Older brother Reid is a redshirt-junior and has started the last two seasons at second base along with serving as closer. Younger brother Ryne is a freshman who was selected as the Illinois High School Gatorade Player of the Year in 2013 and is also an infielder and pitcher.
Beginning with Josh in 2009, the Illini had a Parr on the lineup card for 270 of a possible 271 games over the past five years. The only time a Parr did not play in a game for the Illini was when Josh missed the second game of a doubleheader on April 4, 2009.
All three brothers had standout careers at Illinois and were taken in the MLB Draft. Josh, the oldest brother and a two-time All-Big Ten selection at shortstop, lettered from 2009-11 before being drafted by the Arizona Diamondbacks in the 12th round following his junior year. Justin lettered from 2011-13, playing one season (2011) with Josh and two seasons (2012-13) with his twin brother, Jordan. Justin was a first-team All-American and the Big Ten Player of the Year as the UI center fielder during his senior season in 2013 before being drafted in the eighth round by the Philadelphia Phillies. Jordan lettered from 2012-13 and was a second-team All-Big Ten selection before being drafted in the 15th round by the Arizona Diamondbacks following his redshirt-junior season in 2013. Despite not playing with each other at Illinois, Josh and Jordan were reunited when they both played for the Hillsboro Hops (Diamondbacks Short-Season A affiliate) in the summer of 2013.
Casey Continues Fletcher Family Tradition
The third generation in the Fletcher family will don the Illinois baseball uniform when junior transfer Casey Fletcher takes the field in 2014. Casey is the son and grandson of former Illini and MLB players Darrin Fletcher and Tom Fletcher, respectively. Fletcher, who was a two-time NJCAA All-American, is from Oakwood, Ill., and transferred to Illinois after spending two seasons at Kankakee Community College (KCC). He played multiple positions at KCC as an outfielder, second baseman and pitcher. He drove in 69 RBI in 2013, ranking as the second-highest total in NJCAA Division II baseball.
Uniform Number Changes in 2014
Four players and pitching coach Drew Dickinson will be wearing new numbers on their jerseys in 2014. The full list of changes is below:
Nick Blackburn = No. 22 (wore No. 13 in 2013)
Drew Dickinson = No. 14 (wore No. 41 from 2012-13)
Jason Goldstein = No. 34 (wore No. 36 in 2013)
Zack Kolakowski = No. 2 (wore No. 37 in 2013)
Rob McDonnell = No. 16 (wore No. 14 from 2011-13)
Ryan Nagle = No. 9 (wore No. 44 in 2013)
Illini Face Challenging Schedule in 2014
Illinois' 2014 schedule includes four opponents, Coastal Carolina, Wichita State, Florida and Indiana, that reached the 2013 NCAA Tournament. The Illini will look to qualify for an NCAA Regional in back-to-back years for the first time since 1989-90 and for the third time in four years for the first time in school history. UI begins the 2014 campaign with a three-game series at Georgia State in Atlanta, Ga., from Feb. 14-16, while the home schedule begins on March 18 against Indiana State.
Illinois, which is coming off its most wins (35) under ninth-year head coach Hartleb, will hit the road for the first five weekends of the season. After the season-opening GSU series, UI heads to Myrtle Beach, S.C., for Caravelle Resort's Baseball at the Beach Tournament, where it will face a pair of 2013 NCAA Tournament participants. The Illini will play George Mason on Feb. 21 followed by games against NCAA qualifiers Coastal Carolina and Wichita State the next two days.
The next weekend boasts four games in three days in Gainesville, Fla. Illinois will play both Florida Gulf Coast and host Florida on Feb. 28 followed by a Saturday game against FGCU on March 1 and one final game against Florida on March 2. The Illini leave the state for the final time until the middle of April when they head to Bowling Green, Ky., for a three-game series at Western Kentucky (March 7-9).
Illinois will travel to Carbondale, Ill., for the fourth consecutive year for a three-game set against the Salukis from March 14-16. The Illini then return home for the first time, where they will play eight of their next nine games at Illinois Field. The 2014 home slate begins on March 18 against Indiana State. The Illini then play two games each against EIU and Xavier in Champaign from March 21-23 and a road tilt at Illinois State on March 25 before beginning Big Ten play.
The Illini will host their conference-opening series against Purdue from March 28-30, followed by a non-conference tilt against Missouri at Busch Stadium on April 2 and a trip to Northwestern from April 4-6. After a midweek road contest in Mattoon, Ill., against Eastern Illinois on April 8, Illinois will welcome Michigan for a series from April 11-13. The Illini remain at home for their second game of the season against Illinois State on April 15 before traveling east to Penn State from April 18-20.
The Orange and Blue will begin an eight-game home stand when they play Eastern Illinois for the fourth time on April 22 at Illinois Field. That will be followed by a visit from Indiana (April 25-27), which reached the 2013 College World Series and is ranked in the Top 10 in the Collegiate Baseball preseason poll. Illinois will face Southern Illinois for a fourth time on April 29, followed by its final home series against Michigan State from May 2-4. The Illini will hit the road for the last two weekends of Big Ten play with a series at Iowa (May 9-11) and Nebraska (May 15-17).
The Big Ten Tournament expands to eight teams and moves to TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Neb., in 2014, and will run from May 21-25. The NCAA Tournament begins with the regional round on campus sites May 30-June 1, the super regional round runs June 6-9, and the College World Series at TD Ameritrade Park lasts from June 14-25.