Illinois Baseball: Illini trying to find balance in restructured lineup

Coming into the 2020 campaign, there was a lot of unknown for the Illinois baseball team.

The season has already started for the Orange and Blue. They started the year 1-3 but have rebounded nicely with two-straight victories in their last two contests. Why have the Illini had a shaky start to the season?

Many Illinois fans were rooting on the Illini baseball team in 2019 as they forged their way to the postseason. They made it to the NCAA Regional only to be ousted in the first two games. But why isn’t that success translating to wins early in the 2020 campaign? The simple answer to that question is; talent.

Illinois was loaded with experience in 2019, but a lot of that experience has now departed the program. Some of the bigger names include outfielder Zac Taylor and second baseman Michael Massey. Taylor led the team with 10 home runs and a .612 slugging percentage. He was also hitting .321 on the season. Massey actually departed the program early as he was drafted in the fourth round of the 2019 MLB Draft. He was hitting .317 on the season and was in the top three in just about every statistical category for the Illini.

But it wasn’t just these two Illinois lost from the NCAA tournament team last season. If fact, it is shocking how little experience the Illini return to the lineup. Out of the 1960 at-bats last season, only 754 at-bats returned in 2020. That is 38-percent of the at-bats that came back. Illinois only returned 33-percent of the runs, 35-percent of the hits, 25-percent of the doubles, 35-percent of the home runs, 36-percent of the runs batted in and 32-percent of the total bases.

That is a lot of talent to replace on both offense and defense for the Orange and Blue. So, no wonder there are some early struggles for this team. Illinois’ pitching also took a big hit from 2019 to 2020.

The Illini only returned 40-percent of their starts from last season with the losses of Andy Fisher and Cyrillo Watson being the two big ones. Fisher started 16 games and checked in with a 2.75 earned run average in 2019. Watson wasn’t far behind Fisher with 13 starts and a 3.65 ERA. Losing these two has to hurt the Illini rotation.

One of the bright spots returning for the Orange and Blue include Garrett Acton. He is Illinois’ ace closer with 19 out of the 21 saves for the team last season. His return this year is a huge boost for the bullpen.

Honestly, the pitching staff for the Illini will probably be the heartbeat for the team this year. Ty Weber has stepped into the ace role for this team. He started 14 games last season and has started hot in 2020. Weber is 2-0 through two starts with a 0.82 ERA in 11 innings of work.

It looks like the Illini are trying to find out who the other two solid starters will be this season. Four different Illinois pitchers have started the other four games this season. Ty Rybarczyk has a 0.96 ERA in 9.1 innings of work in his one start, and Cole Kirschsieper sits with a 1.86 ERA in 9.2 innings of work and has a 1-0 record in his lone start. They seem to be the two front runners for the starting rotation.

Illinois’ hitting is what worries me the most early on in the season. Losing the talent this team lost from the 2019 campaign is hard to replace. Cam McDonald is the best Illini batter returning, but he has started the season off a little rough going 2-for-20 from the plate.

Kellen Sarver returned this season with a lot of experience too. He was third on the team in 2019 with a .381 OBP but has come out of the gate cold in 2020. He is 3-for-19 from the plate but is still managing to have a solid .360 OBP.

So, if you are surprised Illinois is off to a rough start to the 2020 campaign, you probably shouldn’t be. This team is still gelling and trying to figure out who fits in where. The upcoming Frisco Classic will be a trial-by-fire tournament. The Illini go up against No. 13 Texas A&M on Friday, No. 23 Oklahoma State on Saturday and finish off the tournament with No. 1 UCLA on Sunday. This will be the real test to see where we are as a program.