Illini Season Preview Part 1: Pitchers

Junior right-hander Kevin Johnson returns for his second season as Illinois' ace in 2012.
Junior right-hander Kevin Johnson returns for his second season as Illinois' ace in 2012.

Feb. 8, 2012

Note: This is the first of a two-part season preview leading into the Illini's season-opener against Notre Dame on Friday, Feb. 17. An in-depth look at the pitching staff is included in this section and an overview of the position players will be posted Friday.

The Fighting Illini enter the 2012 season as reigning Big Ten co-champions and Big Ten Tournament champs. Illinois also advanced to the title game of the NCAA Fullerton Regional with wins over No. 11 Cal State Fullerton and Kansas State.

But the Orange and Blue are a much different team this season than last after a nine-man senior class graduated and three juniors signed professional contracts after being selected in the Major League Baseball Draft in June. With 22 players on the 35-man squad holding freshman or sophomore eligibility, the Illini will need some young players to produce along with a strong but small core of veterans in order to replicate the 2011 team's accomplishments.

One of the positions where Illinois was hit hardest by graduation and the draft was on the mound. Five seniors and one junior hurler combined to throw 293 innings over 38 starts and 61 relief appearances last year (99 of 178 total pitching appearances or 55.6 percent), meaning that Illinois returns only 41.4 percent of innings pitched from last season.

Junior Kevin Johnson returns as the linchpin of the staff and will serve as Illinois' No. 1 starter for the second-straight year. Despite his 2-7 record, Johnson pitched well much of the year and didn't record a decision in four games that he left with the lead or with the game tied. He recorded 103 innings and 68 strikeouts, both of which were the most by an Illini pitcher since current Illinois pitching coach Drew Dickinson hurled 114 2/3 innings and recorded 107 strikeouts in 2002. And there are few better Illini pitchers to learn from than former aces Dickinson and Jason Anderson, who has joined the Illinois staff as a volunteer assistant coach.

Senior Nick Chmielewski, redshirt-freshman Rob McDonnell, junior Matt Milroy, redshirt-freshman Drasen Johnson and true-freshmen John Kravetz and Josh Ferry are the leading candidates for the other spots in the weekend starting rotation. Chmielewski, who missed the 2011 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery midway through 2010, has pitched primarily as a reliever at Illinois, with 36 of his 39 career appearances coming out of the bullpen. But he showed potential in three mid-week starts in 2008 and has earned the spot after strong performances in fall and winter workouts.

McDonnell is a 6-1, 205-pound left-hander from Barrington, Ill., who spent last season rehabilitating his arm after undergoing Tommy John surgery following his final high school campaign. He was one of the top left-handed pitching prospects in the state in the class of 2010 according to Prep Baseball Report.

Milroy has made nine starts and 14 relief appearances during his Illini career, with some success in mid-week starts the past two years. He also thrived as a closer for the Madison Mallards of the Northwoods League in the summer of 2011, earning NWL midseason All-Star honors and proving his versatility.

Drasen Johnson was PBR's No. 25 overall prospect in the state of Illinois in the class of 2010 after helping Illinois Valley Central High School to a third-place finish at the 2010 IHSA Class 2A state tournament. Kravetz was the No. 22 overall prospect and No. 13 pitcher in Illinois in the class of 2011 according to PBR and helped Mount Carmel to a fourth-place finish at the 2011 IHSA Class 4A state tournament. And Ferry was listed as the No. 19 overall prospect and No. 10 pitcher in the state by PBR after earning All-State honors by the Illinois High School Baseball Coaches Association in 2010 and 2011.

Depending on how the rotation shapes up, Milroy, Kravetz, Ferry and Drasen Johnson also could help in relief situations. Senior Will Strack will work primarily out of the bullpen after spending time both as a starter and reliever in his career. He went 3-1 with a 4.03 ERA in 38 innings last season. Sophomore lefty Luke Joyce, who put together a 3.05 ERA in 20 2/3 innings in 2011, and sophomore right-hander Ronnie Muck, who posted a 4.50 ERA in 10 innings of work last season, also will bolster the pen. Senior right-hander Brian de la Torriente, redshirt-freshman right-hander Tyler Hamer, freshmen right-handers Charlie Naso, Brian Kost and P.J. Brennan, and freshman lefty Anthony Milazzo will provide depth for the relief corps. Freshman left-hander Jeremy Scheck will sit out the 2012 season after transferring to Illinois and joining the team in January.

Redshirt-freshman Reid Roper, Milroy and redshirt-junior Bryan Roberts are the likely candidates to serve as Illinois' closer. Roper, who also is a middle infielder, sat out last season after suffering a knee injury during 2010 fall practice. He was a 29th-round selection by the Atlanta Braves in the 2010 MLB Draft and was PBR's No. 5 overall prospect in the state in 2010. He led Harrisburg High School to a runner-up finish in the IHSA Class 2A state playoffs in 2010, earning Louisville Slugger All-American honors. That year, he went 12-0 with a 0.84 ERA while hitting .504 with 10 home runs.

Roberts could return to his spot at the back end of the bullpen after recovering from Tommy John surgery that followed a highly successful 2010 season. That year, Roberts went 2-1 with a 3.90 ERA and was a perfect 9-for-9 in save opportunities, not allowing an earned run in a save situation.