Sophomore Bryan Roberts will help anchor the Illini rotation in 2010.
Feb. 17, 2010
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - In part two of the 2010 Illinois baseball season preview, we take a look at the Illini pitching staff, which returns 10 of 15 hurlers from a year ago, and the schedule, which features early tournaments at preseason hype machines Coastal Carolina and East Carolina as well as the second-annual Big Ten/Big East Challenge.
Who's Back: Two of Illinois' starters at the end of the 2009 season, sophomores Bryan Roberts and Will Strack, return for their second season in Champaign and will likely anchor the rotation. Roberts was 5-4 with a 6.72 ERA and a team-leading 57 strikeouts as the Sunday starter a year ago, while Strack was 6-1 with a 3.84 ERA in nine starts - including the final four Big Ten series and the Big Ten Tournament.
Who's Not: Ben Reeser, who went 3-1 with a 3.22 ERA but missed much of the season with a back injury, graduated in 2009.
Who's New: Freshmen Kevin Johnson and Matt Milroy and sophomore transfer Brian de la Torriente join the Illini squad and all have an opportunity to serve as the third weekend starter or a mid-week starter. Johnson was the No. 13 recruit in the state by PBR and went 11-3 with eight complete games, a 1.35 ERA and 108 strikeouts in 79 innings in 2009. Milroy was a 35th-round draft pick by the Boston Red Sox in the 2009 MLB Draft, and de la Torriente transferred to Illinois after Northern Iowa's baseball program was deactivated following the 2009 season. He went 2-2 with a 7.79 ERA in 32 1/3 innings last season.
"We have some experience on the mound," Hartleb said. "It's going to be an interesting year from the standpoint that we do have experience, yet we're still a very young team."
Who's Back: Illinois returns 68 percent of its bullpen innings from a year ago in juniors John Anderson, Nick Chmielewski and Lee Zerrusen, as well as sophomore Corey Kimes. That doesn't include seniors Kevin Manson and Mike Sterk and junior Wes Braun, who have pitched in important situations for the Illini during their careers. Anderson had two saves in 20 appearances as a late-inning reliever, allowing only 23 hits in 26 1/3 innings in 2009. Chmielewski started the 2009 season as the closer, recording two saves and posting a 3-2 record in 21 appearances.
Zerrusen was 2-1 with a 5.44 ERA while splitting time between the back end of the bullpen and a role as a spot starter. Kimes was 2-1 with a 6.04 ERA, posting 15 strikeouts in 22 1/3 innings over 17 appearances in 2009. In addition, junior Billy Barrett is recovering from Tommy John surgery during the 2009 season and it hasn't been determined whether he'll pitch in 2010.
Who's Not: Aaron Martin, who went 2-1 with a 2.62 ERA and three saves over 34 1/3 innings, and Mike Stankiewicz, who was 1-1 with a 6.23 ERA in 21 2/3 innings, both wrapped up their careers in 2009. In addition, Blake Fairchild, who pitched 5 2/3 innings in 2009, is no longer with the team.
Who's New: The bullpen corps will be bolstered by Johnson, Milroy and de la Torriente, as well as freshman Tanner Libby. Libby was 6-1 with a 0.78 ERA and 40 strikeouts in 41 2/3 innings over the summer for American Legion Post 285. "We have some pitchers who had roles out of the bullpen last season and I think their roles will grow this year," Hartleb said. "I would expect Lee Zerrusen to go from a setup man to a closer. It will be nice to have an established closer and someone who has experience in tight situations, which he gained last year and during the summer.
Illinois faces a challenging 2010 schedule, beginning with a two-game set against Bradley at Illinois Field. The second-annual Big Ten/Big East Challenge will be on the season's second weekend, with the Illini facing Notre Dame, South Florida and St. John's. After that tournament, Illinois travels to Greenville, N.C., for the Keith LeClair Invitational Tournament hosted by East Carolina, where it will face the host Pirates, who reached a super regional in 2009, Western Carolina and West Virginia. The next weekend, the Illini head to Conway, S.C., for the Caravelle Resort Classic, where they square off with host Coastal Carolina twice and Lipscomb and Ball State once each.
"I think we have a very good schedule," Hartleb said. "If we can take care of business, we can put ourselves in a very good position to represent ourselvs well in the RPI. We're going to have three early tournaments where we're playing perennial top 25 teams that are usually very high RPI teams from very good conferences. We'll be tested early, yet I think we're capable of handling this schedule."
Illinois returns to Winter Haven, Fla., for the second-straight year for its annual spring trip. The Illini will face Bucknell, Akron, Dartmouth (twice), North Dakota State and NAIA school Southeastern University. The Illini open Big Ten play the next weekend by hosting Penn State before a trip to Iowa the following weekend. The Penn State series will be streamed live on BigTenNetwork.com.
Illinois also will have a chance to play in Busch Stadium, home of the St. Louis Cardinals, when it squares off with Missouri on April 7. The Illini then head to Iowa before returning for a home game against 2009 Ohio Valley Conference champion Eastern Illinois and their annual trip to Rent One Park in Marion, Ill., to face Southern Illinois.
The Orange and Blue return to Illinois Field for a series against Michigan, which also will be streamed live on BigTenNetwork.com, and wrap up its season series against Illinois State by hosting the Redbirds on April 20. The next day, Illinois heads to Mattoon, Ill., to repay the earlier home game against EIU, but will face the Panthers at Grimes Field at Peterson Park, where the teams played in 2008.
The following weekend will see the Illini travel to Michigan State before returning home for a six-game homestand, Illinois' longest of the season. That stretch begins with a live-streamed game against Bradley before a three-game set against Northwestern. The Friday game of that series will be the second-annual Bleacher Bum Barbecue, which will feature free admission and be broadcast live on the Big Ten Network. The last two games of the series also will be shown live on BTN, then the Illini welcome SIU and Butler to Illinois Field the next week.
The Orange and Blue then travel to 2009 NCAA Tournament qualifier Ohio State for a three-game series that will be streamed live on BigTenNetwork.com before returning for final exams. The Illini then finish the home season by welcoming Purdue to Illinois Field and facing Western Michigan in the season's final home game. The middle game of the Purdue series will be broadcast live on the BTN. A series at Indiana wraps up the regular season before the top six teams in the league head to Bill Davis Stadium in Columbus, Ohio, for the Big Ten Tournament. The tournament was moved from Huntington Park because of a scheduling conflict in 2010 but will return to the excellent facility in 2011 and 2012.
Another adjustment to this year's schedule is the addition of mid-week home-and-home series with in-state opponents, as the Illini will play a pair of midweek games against Illinois State, Eastern Illinois, Southern Illinois and Bradley, meaning the Illini face Bradley four times in 2010.
"As we changed the Big Ten series format to three games, it has opened up more mid-week dates and has allowed us to schedule some home-and-homes with local schools, which is a nice addition," Hartleb. "And I think it will be a great experience for our players to play in Busch Stadium. It will be a fun event for everyone involved."