In our ongoing, but almost never remembered to be done Q&A series, we Anchor of Gold writers occasionally loosen our grips from our cocktails long enough to type and send questions to upcoming competitors. As such, Jim Vainisi of SBNation's The Champaign Room, the University of Illinois' sports blog, reached out to us this week.
Anyway... Jim asked me a series of questions. In the spirit of quid pro quo, I did the same. Here are the questions I asked, and the responses given, verbatim. Let's see what can be gleaned about our B1G opponent:
Anchor of Gold: The Big 10, 14, 1G (which looks like a thousand to me), whatever it's called, which is traditionally a football and basketball conference, has really shot up recently in baseball - this year in particular. To what factors do you attribute this? Better facilities? More emphasis on baseball conference wide? The addition of Maryland? The fact that your school is identified as either a "Legend" or "Leader"? A wish made upon an enchanted monkey's paw? Help me out here.
The Champaign Room: The rise of Big Ten baseball is just another part of Jim Delany's plan for world domination. Indiana's College World Series run in 2013 proved that the Big Ten can compete and, overall, I just think the conference has taken the sport more seriously since then.
The Big Ten Network has made a huge impact for baseball. Before the inception of Delany's brain child, the only way to see these games was to actually go to them. Now, the sport gets more attention since fans can watch two or three contests pretty much every weekend. I also believe that upgrading the conference tournament venue has made the Big Ten a more appealing option to prospects. The tournament, which used to be held at a AAA park in Columbus, now alternates between Target Field (Minnesota Twins' park) and TD Ameritrade Park (College World Series park).
AoG: Further, Illinois has never had a better baseball team than they currently do. We faced each other a few years back in the Regionals, when you had a senior heavy team who gave us a few good games, but this Illini team is different. Other than Tyler Jay, what have been the main reasons for your meteoric rise this year? (*If you answered "enchanted monkey's paw" on the last one, no need to respond.)
TCR: Roster-wise this team is very balanced and it's probably the most talented group of players in program history. However the Illini have definitely benefited from an easy schedule. During the regular season, they only won six games over NCAA Tournament teams—and two of those came over an Indiana squad that was struggling mightily at the time. Timely hitting has also been a huge part of the team's success. Illinois has, surprisingly, trailed quite a bit this year, but the offense has always had some sort of answer. Opposing teams aren't safe until all 27 outs are recorded.
AoG: Speaking of Tyler Jay... tell us about him. What makes him special? Further, do you plan to start him Friday in a battle of potential top of the first round picks? Saturday against Pfeiffer/Buehler? Or do you plan to do what you've done all year, and stash him in the pen to slam the door shut if you have a lead late?
TCR: Tyler Jay is absolutely phenomenal; he's currently projected to be one of the top three picks in next week's MLB Draft. The junior LHP has struck out 70 batters (7 walks) in 60.1 innings of work and his 0.60 ERA is No. 2 in the nation. In total, he's logged a 5-1 record with a school-record 14 saves in 29 appearances this year. I'd say that Jay is known for his fastball (can get up to about 98 MPH when needed), but he also incorporates a great balance of above-average breaking pitches to keep hitters guessing.
I think it's a near guarantee that Jay will be making at least two appearances this weekend. You'll see Kevin Duchene, the staff's ‘ace' on Saturday, but I'm expecting Tyler Jay to get the starting nod for Game 2 on Sunday. His only start of the year was back in February against Lamar—he pitched 5.0 scoreless innings while giving up 2 hits and striking out 6 batters. However, Dan Hartleb has used Jay in a sort of extended relief role throughout the year so his arm can certainly handle the extra work.
AoG: You have a 2.42 team ERA. WHAT VILE WIZARDRY IS THIS?!?!
TCR: Good pitching is such luxury in college and both Illinois and Vanderbilt have been so, so fortunate. The starting rotation of Kevin Duchene (1.46 ERA), Drasen Johnson (2.01 ERA), Rob McDonnell (2.19 ERA), and John Kravetz (3.35) went a combined 33-6 this season. I already mentioned that Duchene will be starting on Saturday, but if Jay doesn't start Game 2 look for Johnson to get the nod.
AoG: Obviously, your team is known for its pitching, but if your pitchers are having an off night, who can step up and knock some in? In other words, can you survive a slugfest?
TCR: Absolutely. Illinois' pitching gets all the attention, but the bats have been an integral part of this team's success. To give you an idea of how explosive the Illini offense can be, they put up 28 runs against Rutgers back in May. That obviously won't happen against the Commodores, but navigating through this lineup is no small task.
One guy to keep an eye on is senior first baseman David Kerian. He was named the Big Ten Player of the Year after recording a slash line of .376/.467/.683; he also hit a conference-leading 16 home runs and drove in 52 RBI. Overall, Illinois has four players batting .300 or better and all but two have an OB% of at least .370.
AoG: When you lose (and you don't lose often), what is usually the culprit?
TCR: Teams that have success against Illinois are able to chase the starting pitchers out of the game relatively early. The backend of the bullpen is very good, but the middle relievers have been a bit shaky at times. Minimizing errors is another important thing for teams looking to take down the Illini. Like I said above, this team has great situational hitting and they take advantage of mistakes all the time.
AoG: What are your predictions for this weekend's match-up?
TCR: This is the biggest series in the history of Illinois baseball. But Vanderbilt has been in this situation before and I believe that prior experience will be invaluable. I think the Commodores will ultimately win in three, with the Illini taking the middle game on Sunday. I hope I'm wrong because the CWS shirts are amazing and I want to purchase the Illinois version.
*Bonus Question: You have a player named Drago on your team, but he has only gotten into 3 games this year, and is hitless. Is this due to his killing of Apollo Creed, and subsequent suspension, or has he been forced back to Russia by Nicolai Koloff for an intense training regimen and steroid program to be the face of Soviet superiority?
TCR: "I defeat all man. Soon I defeat defending champion. If a Commodore dies, he dies." ~ Drago