Illinois Baseball: Preview and Breakdown of the 2017 Season

Feb 14, 2017; Port St. Lucie, FL, USA; a general view of a baseball bat and glove on the field during New York Mets spring training workouts at Tradition Field. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 14, 2017; Port St. Lucie, FL, USA; a general view of a baseball bat and glove on the field during New York Mets spring training workouts at Tradition Field. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports /

Ladies and gentlemen, it might still be cold and gray outside, but pitchers and catchers reported this week in MLB — so it’s time to start thinking about baseball.

While college baseball doesn’t always move the needle in Big Ten country, especially this early in the year, it’s always fun to think about where your team might be come spring and summer. What does 2017 have in store for Illinois baseball?

The first two series take place this weekend, down in Beaumont, Texas, at the Lamar Cardinal Classic. In fact, as the Illini make their way through Texas, Florida and South Carolina for the next month, they won’t play a game in Champaign until March 14. This scheduling is very typical for any school located north of the Mason-Dixon.

To see the full Illinois baseball schedule for 2017, click here.

Without further ado, let’s dive in.

Stats to Know

  • Head coach: Dan Hartleb
    • 12th season
    • Overall record: 354-253-1 (.583)
    • 2015 Big Ten Coach of the Year and National Coach of the Year finalist
  • 2016 record
    • 28-23 overall / 12-12 conference
    • Finished 9th (out of 13)
  • 2017 roster breakdown
    • Seniors: 6
    • Juniors: 7
    • Sophomores: 13
    • Freshmen: 8
  • Key returning position players (started more than 50% of 2016 games): 6
  • Key returning pitchers (appeared in more than 25% of 2016 games): 2
  • Predicted Big Ten finish (according to 8th

Position Player to Watch

Pat McInerney, 1B, senior

McInerney was recently ranked as the No. 32 1B in the nation by As a senior leader, and one of six returning positional starters, McInerney will be crucial to Illinois baseball’s offensive output this year.

Last year, as a junior, he slashed .301/.373/.456 while leading the team in home runs (7) and multi-hit games (20). His OPS of .829 points to an elite hitter, and his three-year progression at the plate suggests he could be even better in his final season for the Illini.

With a career fielding percentage of .995, “Pat Mac” is no slouch on defense, either.

Pitcher to Watch

Cole Bellair, RHP, sophomore

Bellair is one of only two returning key pitchers from last year’s squad, and (likely) the only one who will remain in a starter’s role, so his continued development will be very important. (It seems as if junior LHP Doug Hayes will shift to a bullpen role with the departure of Illinois’ top three relievers from 2016).

As a freshman last season, Bellair appeared in 16 games, starting nine of them, and he finished with a 2-3 record and 3.34 ERA while being named to the All-Big Ten Freshman Team.

The Illini are young this year at pitcher — Hartleb is running out three sophomores and a freshman in this weekend’s opening tournament — so Bellair will be counted on to come through quite a bit in only his second collegiate season.

Most Important Non-Conference Series

No. 11 Coastal Carolina Chanticleers, March 10-12

Is Illinois baseball ready for the big time this year? Well, we’ll know for sure after this series, which takes place at Coastal Carolina in Conway, South Carolina.

Not only are the Chanticleers ranked No. 11 in’s preseason poll, they are the defending NCAA CWS Champions.

On the mound, they are the exact opposite of Illinois, returning two senior starters who each won double-digit games last year and finished with sub-4.00 ERAs. Staff ace Andrew Beckwith finished 15-1/1.85 and is a 2017 preseason All-American.

I don’t expect the Illini to come out of this road series with a win, but taking one out of three and being competitive in each game would go a long way to proving themselves before heading into conference play.

Most Important Conference Series

No. 22 Maryland Terrapins, May 5-7

The Terps are the only Big Ten team to be ranked in the preseason, coming in at No. 22 by This doesn’t mean the Big Ten will be “easy” by any means, but it does make this particular series stand out on the schedule.

What’s more interesting to me, however, is the timing and the location. It’s the third-to-last series of the year, and the Illini get them at home in Champaign, so it could be huge for any postseason hopes.

Maryland has a potent offense, with six players in the projected lineup who brought in more than 23 baserunners last season and three who mashed five or more home runs. As far as college baseball teams go, especially in the Big Ten, they can rake.

Next: The Case for Monty Williams as Next Illini Head Coach

Final Thoughts

Illinois baseball lost a lot of pitching talent in the past two years, both to the MLB Draft and graduation, so the young arms are going to have to really develop for this team to remain competitive.

I expect an experienced, fairly talented positional lineup to keep the Illini in games with solid offensive production, while winning a few surprise ones along the way. There is potential for more, but it remains to be seen.

Coach Hartleb is one of the best in the business, and his leadership and game management will always have the Illini mentally and physically prepared. No four-year baseball player at Illinois under Hartleb has EVER finished his career with a sub-.500 record, which is incredibly impressive.

So, with a competitive attitude and a little luck here and there, Illinois is certainly capable of finishing as a middle-of-the-pack Big Ten team.

I predict a 7th-place finish in the Big Ten, which would get them to the conference tournament, at the very least. This would be a step in the right direction for what I believe should be two very good years to follow in 2018 and 2019.