2016 Season Recap
After coming off a conference win and hosting a Super Regional, the Illini took some lumps and has a disappointing 2016 season. Finishing 28-23 (12-12 conference) and missing the Big Ten tourney, the Illini missed cashing in on the end of a run of talent. They did feature Big Ten Pitcher of the Year, Cody Sedlock, who proceeded to go in the first round of the MLB draft to the Orioles. After a total of 8 MLB draft picks leaving the team from 2015-16, the Illini are ready to build a new crop of talent.
Pitcher to Watch
Cole Bellair took home All-Freshmen Big Ten honors in 2016 and with nine total starts. This year, he is the most seasoned starter on the team. Featuring a 3.34 ERA and respectable .240 average against, he’s says he’ll be looking to build more strikeouts (35 in 59.1 innings) with an increase in velocity and better located off-speed pitches. He keeps the walks low already, with 13 all year, so building even more deception into his game should solidify him alongside the great pitchers of recent Illinois seasons.
Hitter to Watch
Senior Pat McInerney is bringing back his power bat for the Illini. Hitting 7 HR’s and boasting an .829 OPS, it will be a fun time watching him drive home the speedy Illini team. He also is disciplined for a big bat, only grounding into 2 double plays all season. If he decreases the strikeout rate slightly (19.8%) that would make him extremely dangerous to opponent’s pitching.
Newcomer to Watch
Luke Shilling, while not a complete newcomer, only had 2.2 innings pitched out of the bullpen last season. Named the opening day starter this year, he’s looking to ride the success of summer league where in a setup role, averaged 9.0 K’s/9. A towering force on the mound at 6-foot-5, he should terrify hitters with a high 90’s fastball.
The series in non-conference play that will show how the young talent stacks up is Coastal Carolina, taking on the defending champs on their diamond in Conway. This is the last series before coming home to Champaign for Big Ten play, and will set the tone for how the season could go. Building a lot of momentum would be great to make a good run at the conference.
Head Coach Dan Hartleb has said that this season is at worst a reloading one. He is confident that the level of defense and speed will help keep them in games. Pitching coach Drew Dickinson already has shown his talents by sending two back-to-back first rounders to the majors. The staff is young, but working with him, they are going to be on the right track. While the Illini are basically a big question mark at this point, if they play solid defense and the pitching comes through, making the Big Ten tournament is definitely on the radar. A good showing in the tourney would be the perfect setup for a deeper run next season.