Illinois Baseball: Starting rotation is set for Illini season opening series

Illinois pitcher Riley Gowens (42) is greeted by teammates after closing out an inning during a NCAA Big Ten Conference baseball game against Iowa, Sunday, May 16, 2021, at Duane Banks Field in Iowa City, Iowa.210516 Ill Iowa Bsb 025 Jpg
Illinois pitcher Riley Gowens (42) is greeted by teammates after closing out an inning during a NCAA Big Ten Conference baseball game against Iowa, Sunday, May 16, 2021, at Duane Banks Field in Iowa City, Iowa.210516 Ill Iowa Bsb 025 Jpg /

Illinois baseball is back in action this weekend after a nearly nine-month layoff.

The last time we saw the Illini in action, they fell just short to Rutgers in Piscataway, 6-3. The trend last season was various ups and downs throughout the year, which would eventually land the Orange and Blue with a 22-22 record.

We haven’t seen a regular year of baseball in quite some time, though. The 2021 campaign was just the Big Ten playing against each other due to COVID. The 2020 season was cut short to COVID as well. So, we are finally getting to see a full season for the Illini starting on Friday.

Expect a veteran-led Illinois baseball squad to come out strong against Kansas.

The first series of the season is Illinois heading to Corpus Christi, Texas to take on the Kansas Jayhawks. This three-game series should get the Illini off on the right foot, as the program has a lot of experience returning, and one of the best pitching prospects in the country.


An immense amount of talent is returning to the Illinois batting lineup. This should be a strength for the Illinois baseball team in 2022.

  • Who is missing?

One of the biggest bats in the lineup from 2021, Jackson Raper, has departed the program. He led the Illini in slugging percentage, home runs, walks, and runs, so he will be missed dearly.

Illinois is also going to be without Nathan Aide. He was a solid contributor on the team in 2021 with a .286 average and driving in nine runs.

  • Who is returning?

A vast majority of the Illinois lineup is back for another season. While losing Raper and Aide will hurt the team, most of the production returns.

Illinois is returning at least 80% of their runs, hits, RBI, and walks from last season. We are also returning 70% of our home runs.

The two players who led the Illini in batting average this past season, Justin Janas and Branden Comia, both return this year. They combined for 56 RBI and 66 runs in 2021. Look for these two to be a dynamic duo once again.

Illinois has some power returning to the lineup as well. Kellen Sarver is back after hitting eight home runs last season, which was second on the team. Jacob Campbell and Ryan Hampe also return after each hitting six home runs last year, which was a tie for third on the team.

I also look for Cam McDonald to have a nice rebound year. He started every game for the Illini in 2021, but his numbers weren’t where they were the prior campaign. Look for McDonald to improve on his .249 batting average and .355 slugging percentage in 2022.


Unlike the Illinois batting lineup, the pitching staff took a bit of a hit from last season. Losing one of our aces is going to hurt.

  • Who is missing?

Andrew Hoffman is the big blow to the Illinois pitching staff in 2022. He started 11 games for the Illini last season, which was second on the team. He also led the Orange and Blue with a 2.87 ERA. That was easily the best on the team.

Another big blow to the Illini is the departure of Nathan Lavender. He started nine games last season and was third on the team with a 4.11 ERA.

Hoffman and Lavender led the Illini in innings pitched last season as well. These two will be missed by the squad this season.

  • Who is returning?

While, essentially, our top two pitchers left the program, Illinois has some talent still on the roster. The pitching staff is loaded with experience.

Seven of our top nine pitchers who pitched the most innings are back for the Illini. The leader of the pitching rotation looks to be lefty, Cole Kirschsieper.

Kirschsieper had a 5.82 ERA last season but did have four starts and he led the Illini in saves. He also averaged 1.26 strikeouts per inning, which leads the team among returning players. According to, Kirschsieper is the No. 95 among college draft prospects for 2022.

Payton Hutchings is going to be a big contributor to the team this season as well. He only pitched 14 innings in 2021, but he has been given the job as the third starter this weekend against Kansas. I am looking for him to improve on his 8.36 ERA in eight appearances from last season.

Look for Riley Gowens and Ty Rybarczyk to be impact pitchers for the program once again. They each threw over 39 innings for the Illini last season.

I think the rotation is good, but it is definitely Illinois’ weak spot. If we can get clicking and find a groove with pitching, this team can make a splash in the Big Ten.

New Additions

I can’t go without mentioning the impact incoming transfer Jack Wenninger is going to have on the program.

Wenninger transferred in from Murray State where he had a pretty good freshman campaign in 2021. He made the Ohio Valley Conference All-Freshman Team and finished 4-5 with a 5.26 ERA. Head coach Dan Hartleb named Wenninger the starter for the Saturday game against Kansas.

There is potential for Illinois to have a solid season in 2022. A lot of returning bats are back in the batting order, and if things go right with the pitching staff, there is no telling how good this team could be.

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