Spring Forward: Baseball

 

Let’s continue our spring sports summary series with baseball. The program operates in relative mediocrity and obscurity at NU. Attendance at home games numbers in the tens a lot of the time. Given the collective "meh" surrounding the program, you hear occasional chatter on NU fan message boards and listservs to eliminate it and instead use its funding to add another men’s sport that NU might do better in, say, lacrosse or ice hockey or crew.  (To wit, check out this thread on the NU Rivals.com board.)

The arguments basically boil down to: 1) We usually suck in baseball, 2) The BigTen in general sucks at baseball, so 3) Why not add a sport that we could be competitive in, or at the very least, that people will actually pay attention to in the Midwest?

It’s true that college baseball is largely an afterthought in areas where it’s liable to still be snowing in April. But on the flip side, some of NU’s most recognizable sporting alumni are in baseball, including arguably the most prominent, Yankees manager Joe Girardi, and just about every year, NU has a player or two selected in the first 20 rounds of the Major League Baseball draft. Some of them, like Mark Loretta and J.A. Happ, go on to do well in the big leagues.

This season, the baseball team has plugged along, going 14-25, 6-9 in BigTen play. Though the team was hoping to build on last year’s third-place finish in the conference, NU hasn’t been able to establish any kind of consistency. Personnel losses have definitely hurt. Before the season began, NU lost two of its best players to the draft, plus Arby Fields (remember him?) to a transfer and ace pitcher Zach Morton for the season to a torn ACL. 

Hit the jump for a deeper dive into our baseball program.

Most recent result: Last weekend, the Wildcats dropped two out of three to Illinois.

How does the sport work? Top six teams in the BigTen standings make the conference tournament, the winner of which gets an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. The conference tournament is double elimination and will be held May 25-28 at Huntington Park in Columbus, Ohio, the home of the Triple-A Columbus Clippers.

The NCAA tournament has 64 berths, 31 of them to conference champions and 33 at-large slots. Selected teams are grouped into 16 four-team regionals, which are double-elimination. Winners of the regionals are paired off in super-regionals, which are best two out of three. The eight winners advance to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., which is double elimination, until the final, which is best two out of three.

How’s the team doing? The team’s 14-25 record pretty much speaks for itself. Given that 12 out of 26 players on the roster are freshmen, the team’s spotty performance is somewhat expected.  The good news for NU is that the BigTen standings are really bunched. The Wildcats stand just one game out of sixth place, the cut off for qualifying for the conference tournament.

While the losses to graduation were expected, being without the services of Arby Fields and Zach Morton have really set the team back. Fields was the team’s starting centerfielder last season, rushing for 0.4 yards-per-carry batting .292 with a team-leading 15 doubles and 27 RBI, while Morton not only was a first-team All-BigTen selection as a second baseman, batting .427, he was slated to be the team’s No. 1 starter on the mound, as well.

As a team, NU ranks seventh in the BigTen in batting average, eighth in ERA and eighth in errors committed. Could be worse!

Who are the players to watch? As in most seasons, NU has a few top performers this year, but depth quickly drops off. Offensively, junior 1B Paul Snieder is the team’s top professional prospect, batting .348/.442/.522, with 4 home runs and 31 RBI, tops on the team in both categories. He also excels on the mound, with a 2.37 ERA in 19 innings and 4 saves, as the team’s closer.

Senior 3B Chris Lashmet is batting .358/.420/.470, while junior OF Trevor Stevens, son of the head coach, is batting .305/.420/.383. Freshman 1B Jack Livingston has slugged .328/.453/.552 in limited playing time, and he has also pitched six scoreless innings.

Pitching-wise, the Wildcats’ starting rotation has been rather spotty. Sophomore Luke Farrell, son of Toronto Blue Jays manager John Farrell, has been the top performer, going 4-2, with a 3.60 ERA in 10 starts. Junior Francis Brooke is the team’s most experienced starter, but has been slowed by a shoulder injury. In six starts, he has gone 0-2 with a 5.52 ERA.  Michael Jahns has made five starts with modest success (4.05 ERA), while the rest of the rotation has had a rough go. The bullpen is a bit better. Besides Snieder, freshman Ethan Bramschreiber has a 3.55 ERA, while Kyle Ruchim has a 3.75 ERA.

How’d they do last year? The team finished 24-32, 13-11 in BigTen play. The conference record was good for third place. The Wildcats were then bounced from the BigTen tournament, losing its first two games. Following the season, NU had four players named to the All-BigTen first team: Pitcher Eric Joskich (drafted in the 11th round by the Chicago Cubs), Lashmet, Morton and Snieder. Stevens was named to the second team.

What’s the historical context? As I said in the intro, the baseball program hasn’t had too many bright moments. Occasionally, as in 2006, when the team placed second in the BigTen, the Wildcats will emerge from an unimpressive non-conference slate and perform surprisingly well in the BigTen, which probably says more about the conference than anything.  NU has qualified for the NCAA tournament just once, in 1957. The program nearly broke through in the mid-1980s, but since then, NU hasn’t come close to sniffing a postseason berth.

As far as NU players in the pros, besides the aforementioned J.A. Happ, Yankees prospect George Kontos is pitching in Triple-A, with a 2.45 ERA in 18.1 innings, all in relief; Cubs prospect Eric Joskich is pitching in Single-A out of the bullpen, with a 2.95 ERA in 21.1 innings; and Astros prospect Jake Goebbert is slugging .275 with 5 home runs in Single-A ball.

Who are the coaches? Paul Stevens took over the team in 1987, and he is the program’s winningest coach, which is a testament to his longevity. Though NU has been mostly a conference also-ran, he has picked up three BigTen Coach of the Year awards in his 24 seasons, most recently in 2006, when the Wildcats went 21-11 in conference. During his tenure, 59 players have been drafted or signed by a Major League team.

Prior to being named head coach, Stevens served as an assistant at NU for three seasons. He has also been a scout for the New York Mets and played five years of minor league ball in the Kansas City and Oakland organizations. He graduated from Lewis University.

Former Major Leaguer and World Series champ Tim Stoddard serves as the pitching coach. NU alum Jon Mikrut is the hitting coach, and Joe Keenan is the volunteer assistant coach.

What’s the outlook for the rest of the season? The Wildcats are still in the thick of the BigTen race, and they have nine conference games left (along with two non-conference games).  Each of the three conference series will be crucial. First up is this weekend’s three-game set at Indiana, which is currently tied with NU in seventh place at 6-9. Then the following weekend NU returns home to take on Michigan, also 6-9 in the conference. The Wildcats then close out the season against first-place Michigan State on the road.

NU can’t afford many more losses if it hopes to finish in the top six and qualify for the BigTen tournament.

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