by Jonah Rosenblum (@jonahlrosenblum)
Leading Off: Getting Their Star Back
The biggest question facing Northwestern after its opening weekend is how serious Kyle Ruchim's separated shoulder turns out to be. Coach Paul Stevens said that he was fairly sure that his second baseman would be back well before the start of Big Ten play. That being said, he declined to provide a specific timetable for Ruchim's return. He did mention that Ruchim's pitching shouldn't be affected, given that the injury was to his non-pitching arm.
"It was kind of painful to see what had happened, but the great news is that he'll be back and things are going to be looking very, very good for us and him," Stevens said. "He's going to be back quite a bit, I believe, before the Big Ten season. He's someone that we're very confident is going to be back sooner rather than later."
It's a shame that the injury happened when it did, given that he was six for his first seven at the plate, including two triples and a double, to go with two shutout innings in relief to secure a victory against Miami (Ohio). This isn't particularly surprising, given that the two-way sensation hit .289 and led the team with 12 doubles last season. It does confirm, however, some of the team's high hopes for him. He's always possessed decent power and excellent speed, but there was the feeling that Ruchim could be better — that he should be a .300 hitter. His early results fueled that hope for the future.
"Kyle has been squaring up the ball as well as anybody," Stevens said. "He's just been putting the barrel on the ball for a couple of weeks now. Even in the cages, the outs that he made were screaming meanies to the position player. He was just scalding the baseball."
On Deck: A Big Ten Test
Northwestern also had the unusual treat of playing a Big Ten team before the formal start of conference play when it squared off against Michigan State this past weekend. Last season, the Wildcats didn't see a fellow Big Ten team until their 20th game, so Sunday allowed them a unique chance to see how they stacked up early on.
"Michigan State has got a great reputation and they're picked pretty high in this conference this year, so that was really exciting to see that we were in the position to, even though we made quite a few mistakes, we were still in a position at the end of the ball game to have one swing of the bat change a loss to a win," Stevens said.
Though the Wildcats fell to the Spartans, 7-4, Stevens said that he was particularly encouraged by how his team squared up against Michigan State hurler David Garner. Garner was 6-1 with a 3.06 earned run average in 11 starts last season, averaging more than a strikeout per inning. This past summer, the 33rd round pick in the 2010 Major League Baseball Draft continued to shine, striking out nearly a batter an inning to earn his spot on the West Division All-Star Team in the prestigious Cape Cod League.
Northwestern managed to tally eight hits and four earned runs against Garner in six innings, providing a promising sign of what the Wildcats might be able to do against the Big Ten's top pitchers this season.
"You take the opportunity to face somebody like Garner, who is probably one of the top three prospects in this league, throwing as hard as he does and with his slider, and say, 'Wow, we were competing with this guy,' and that's a huge confidence builder that you know what, we did some good things against a guy who's probably one of the top arms in this conference," Stevens said. "That's just a great, great emotional boost for our guys to go, 'Dang, we can do this.'"
In The Hole: A Change In Plans
This past weekend, Northwestern suffered the indignity of a cancelled game, a game in which it was leading, by the way. This coming weekend, the Wildcats had an entire series cancelled, as they were set to travel to Lawrence, Kan., to take on Kansas. Their Big XII stretch has now been cut in half. Their series against Kansas was supposed to lead into a series against Missouri. Now, half of the games have been replaced by a series of contests against lesser-known teams, and who knows what the weather will be like in Springfield, Mo., the following weekend.
"Obviously, the Kansas situation hurts, but we'll find a way to work around it here," Stevens said. "We'll get in a few more games somehow, somewhere."
Stevens did figure out a way to get a few more games in — more on that later. But the Wildcats did lose a solid shot to rack up experience against power conference opposition, even if neither the Tigers nor the Jayhawks were particularly good last season, finishing sixth and seventh in the conference, respectively.
While Stevens said that the 15 non-conference games his team has lined up leading into Big Ten play is plenty, the one issue he did have with the weather is it has limited his team's ability to practice tracking balls in the sky. Between the snowy weather in Evanston and the cancelled game against Furman, Northwestern has had limited chances to navigate the clouds. That showed this weekend when four errors doomed the Wildcats against the Spartans, including two errors by left fielder Walker Moses, which helped lead to two three-run frames for Michigan State.
"There hasn't been a lot of snow, but it's kept us from being outside." Stevens said. "We had trouble with high skies, and there's not a whole lot you're going to do about high skies when you're forced inside as much as we've been this winter, where we haven't been able to get out on the turf and do some of the things that we have in the past."
Batting Cleanup: Revenge Contest Awaits
At the end of my conversation with Coach Stevens on Wednesday, he warned me to be on the lookout for games this weekend, mentioning that he always has a "bag of tricks" at the ready. He wasn't lying, as the Wildcats have actually gained a game overall, scheduling four games this weekend to replace the three that were cancelled.
Overall, the competition is not Big XII-quality like Kansas would have been. Ball State went 14-36 last season, and gave up 21 runs over two games against Big Ten opposition. Zach Lowery, meanwhile, is probably one of the biggest threats for a .500-type Lipscomb ball club. He hit six home runs last season and already has a couple of long balls in 2013. Northern Kentucky is winless on the season, as the Norse's pitching staff has been roughed up all year long.
The most interesting match of the weekend is probably the second game of a Saturday doubleheader, when Northwestern gets a rematch with St. Louis, which bested the Wildcats at Rocky Miller Park to send Northwestern to the golf course with a sour taste in its mouth last season. The Wildcats scored just seven runs combined in three games against the Billikens. St. Louis brings back all three of its starting pitchers from last year's series in Alex Alemann (7-2, 2.84 ERA in 2012), Nick Bates (6-1, 3.02 ERA) and Clay Smith (7-2, 2.62 ERA), so Northwestern's newfound offense will be tested early.