A lot has been made about the Big Three in Florida’s 2018 weekend rotation. Brady Singer and company are expected to give the Gators an excellent chance in returning to Omaha. The same can be said about the front end of Oregon State’s staff.
And then there’s Illinois-Chicago.
You may have just asked yourself, 'Who?', and that’s OK. The UIC Flames pitching staff may be the most under-the-radar staff in the nation.Head coach Mike Dee’s staff was deep last season. They jumped from a fourth place finish in 2016 to the Horizon League regular season and tournament champions, returning to the NCAA regionals for the first time since 2008. They did it behind one of the most dominating pitching staffs in the nation, finishing second in Division I in ERA (2.65) and WHIP (1.11).
“We thought we had a chance to be very good,” Dee told NCAA.com. “I don’t know that anybody would say, ‘oh hey, we’re going to be the second best pitching staff in the country.’ The fact of the matter was we had nine or ten guys that were pretty experienced, and they were really easy to work with. They started feeding off each other, and it turned into an internal competition. The nice thing about it was that it was consistent from the beginning to the end, guys just understood their roles.”
That team set a program record, seeing six players go in the first three days of the MLB Draft. One of those players was ace Jake Dahlberg. While losing him may hurt early in the season, the Flames return plenty of nice pieces that are ready to take the next step for another run in 2018.
One of those pieces will be Reid Birlingmair. The junior righty has come a long way since stepping into Curtis Granderson Stadium.
“He’s a great story,” Dee said. “He walked on, and came here throwing 84, 86. I don’t think I’ve had a player in all my years train as intelligently or intensely. He’s 215 pounds and probably four percent body fat. Now he’s 94 to 96, and he’s just hard to get on. He’s got a power breaking ball, throws his slider 84, 86 miles per hour and he’s got a plus changeup. He just attacks the hitter, he’s a really aggressive guy. Plus, he’s a 4.0 student, so he's really smart. He’s a unique combination of different things.”
Backing him up in the bullpen will be closer Alex Padilla. Padilla earned All-American honors last season after picking up 10 saves and recording a ridiculous 0.45 ERA while limiting opponents to a .196 batting average. This preseason, the accolades continued to roll in, earning preseason All-American honors and a nod on the NCBWA Stopper of the Year watchlist.
“They are remarkable,” Dee said of Padilla’s overall numbers. “I don’t know if you know this. He gave up a walk-off home run against Missouri in the third weekend of the year last year. It was the last run he gave up. It was literally the craziest thing I’ve ever seen. I keep reminding him, ‘you know, you do realize you’re going to give up a run here sooner or later?’ We’re all really confident in him, and he’s certainly a confident young man. More importantly he really likes that role.”
That could be the biggest strength of this Flames staff early in the season. The weekend rotation — Birlingmair, Ryan Campbell and Jacob Key — all have experience, but will all be in new roles. The bullpen, however, remains relatively in tact.
“The back end of our bullpen is almost the same,” Dee said. “We’ll be throwing [Noah] Masa in the seventh inning, he’s a dynamic arm with a power breaking ball. [Charlie] Cerny and Padillia in the eighth and the ninth, all of those guys have bumped up in velocity and got a lot of experience now. Reid is ready to pitch on Fridays. I think Ryan Campbell has a chance to go to the next level, he’ll be in the second hole. He’s 91 to 93, with a power sinker. And Jacob Key put on 20 something pounds and picked up velocity. I think we have a good chance to be very good on the mound.”
The Horizon should be a fun battle this season, especially with a Wright State team that Dee feels has an equally under-the-radar pitching staff itself. Whereas certain leagues are known for certain advantages — take the power-happy offenses of the Ohio Valley Conference, for example — it’s hard to pinpoint what excels in the Horizon League.
“Boy, that’s a good question,” Dee said. “I think each program kind of has its own identity. Just like ours, we’ve placed a heavy emphasis on pitching and defense. Part of that is we play on turf and we play in a park that the wind blows in a lot. Relying on hitting balls out of the ballpark is difficult to do here. Whereas there are teams that put the emphasis on offense. It makes for an interesting dynamic.”
UIC starts its season Friday, February 16 at the Andre Dawson Classic in New Orleans. The Flames new look rotation will be on display against Southern, New Orleans and Prairie View A&M over the three-day tournament. Win or lose, Dee knows he has another special group on his hands.
“They’re really fun to be around and work with on a daily basis,” he said. “And there are three or four other guys that are new and are going to contribute that we’re excited about their future as well. But we’ll find out this weekend.
“I’m really proud of those kids. They’ve worked really hard, and they’ve done it very intelligently. They’ve earned everything that they’ve got. I’m happy for them, I truly am.”