Illinois State fell a victory during the program’s first superregional appearance in 2019, and in 2020 it was in the middle of fighting through an extremely difficult stretch of plan when the season was canceled.
In 2021, provided the seasonal structure is something close to normal, the Redbirds will once again embark on a challenging slate that will set them up for a big bid if they can knock off some big names here and there along the way, as they did against Vanderbilt in 2019 and had already done against Oklahoma and Arkansas in 2020.
It’s always a tough query from year to year at the mid-level, but the ISU has a mix of experience across the list and high-end talent in key positions that suggests it can pull it off again.
What kind of benefit will ISU’s experience provide?
Thanks to qualifying relief for all 2020 roster players, most college baseball teams will be older than usual by 2021, but Illinois State is an extreme example.
The Redbirds will have 11 players on the field in 2021 who have been in college baseball for at least five seasons, including a seventh player in first baseman / outfielder Ryan Hutchinson. Just about every one of the 11 players was part of the regional team in 2019.
It may not be a point against all the players because Illinois State will not be the only extraordinarily old team out there, but come June, if the Redbirds are in a regional area again, it could be an advantage over a larger conference teams that had a more normal turnover after the 2020 season or a medium-sized team that does not have the great gaming experience they do.
Coach Steve holm and his staff could not have foreseen the circumstances that would allow this level of experience on the team, but getting to a point where this type of veteran presence exists was the goal, not only in the context of this year, but going forward.
“When this (pandemic) happened, we sat down as a coaching staff and said ‘Okay, how can we take advantage of the cards we’re dealt? “And in a school like this, your goal is to be as old as possible,” said Holm.
Which fifth-year return player will have the most impact?
It was not always a sure thing that Johnson would be back in an ISU uniform in 2021. During the draft, he began receiving phone calls from interested organizations in the fourth round, and although he did not end up being elected, the opportunity to sign was free agent after the draft was very available to him. Johnson, however, was not so interested in that option, due to concerns about how difficult it would be for him to develop without the benefit of a minor league season until at least 2021.
“He just said ‘Look, during this time, if you take me to the top five rounds, I’ll sign. If not, I do not know how to develop alone, ” said Holm.
Now Johnson Redbirds is giving a workhorse Friday starts that could be as good as any at the Missouri Valley Conference. His fast ball was up to 96 km / h during the 2020 season, supplemented well with a low ball in the 80’s. With experiences such as starting an elimination match in a regional against Louisville in 2019 and ending a victory over Arkansas last year, he will not be intimidated by any situation he has put in.
Behind Johnson, third-year freshman Sean Sinisko is back to recreate his role in this weekend’s rotation, and the most exciting option to fill third place is real starter Mason Burns, a local Bloomington product that has been up to 95 km / h this fall.
One wild card in the tournament competition is junior college transfer Jordan lussier, in Winnipeg, Manitoba, a native that Holm remembers evaluating for the first time when he was employed by Purdue and Lussier went to high school. A two-way player in junior college, the rectangular is a good athlete on the mound and has shown excellent pitchability when he came strong late in the fall.
What can we expect from Hayden Jones?
Simply put, left-handed catchers with great power, plus throwing arms and the first round up, do not often land in mid-sized programs. To be fair, third-year student Hayden Jones began his career in Mississippi State, but he is in Illinois State now and ready to make a big impact.
In the lineup, he is expected to hit the middle of the order and be a producer. He is certainly capable of being an impact team, not unlike a third baseman Joe aeilts, who was player of the year in MVC in 2019 or outdoor player John rave, which was a fifth round at the end of that season.
Behind the plate, the arm is a weapon, and while some of his defensive skills were not as far off as the fall started, he has shown a marked improvement in that department since returning to campus. Having a coach in Holm who himself was a catch in the big leagues can only help in his defensive development.
The ISU has made a decent amount of backstops in recent years, and occasional days off from the position will always be on the table for catchers, but it seems extremely unlikely that Jones will share much time with anyone next season.
Where are the position logs?
Two thirds of the outfield is fairly well settled. In the left field will be Gunner Peterson, a third-year student who hit .364 / .462 / .636 in 2020. In the center is Joe Butler, a good athlete who has experience in just about every position on the court.
The right field is more up in the air, and that fight will have ripple effects for other positions.
The best defensive outfielder for the job would be fifth-year senior Jeremy Gaines, who is also a .309 career hitter. It’s also fifth-year senior Jack Butler who struck. 304 with 15 doubles in 2019, and Hutchinson, seventh year senior.
If Gaines earns the most time there, Butler and Hutchinson could be in the mix at first base, where they will compete with fourth-year student Jake McCaw. Those who do not earn playing time there, could find bats on DH, where they would fight with sitting fifth-year senior Jordan libman and fourth-year junior catcher Tyson Hays, who will look to earn bats when he does not spell Jones behind the plate.
Some of the players have experience at third base, and it may be a landing place in a pinch, but full-time bats in that position will go to second-year freshman Ryan Cermak, which may have the highest ceiling of a position player on the list. Holm believes that he can be an MVC player of the year type of talent when his days are over at ISU.
Straight field / first base / DH logjam shows the veteran depth that Redbirds has collected over the last couple of years. There are six players involved who would ideally get regular bats, but it just won’t always be enough to walk around.
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Who closes games?
After taking some of a committee approach to ending games in 2020, this is the job of rectangle Derek Salata in 2021 as it looks now. Last season, he threw 10.1 pointless innings with 11 strikes and just one walk, and his performance this fall has only confirmed that he is the best guy for the role.
“Last year (Salata) really got there (it is) like ‘This baby is going to be pretty good’ and the mentality had changed,” Holm said. “This fall, he was completely different from everyone else, so he wanted to be closer on day one.”
However, there is depth behind him in the bullpen. Fourth year junior ranger Connor plow, which only allowed one earned race in 8.2 laps last season, has been up to 96 km / h and will help bridge the gap to Salata.
Others to see include second-year beginners Erik Kubiatowicz, who returns after having success right out of the gate last season, and junior college transfer Jared hart, which adds some balance as a left thrower.