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A late-season surge has Northwestern baseball well ahead of schedule

The Wildcats are on the verge of their first Big Ten Tournament berth since 2010.

Credit: NUSports.com

It took Northwestern baseball eight games — and almost half a month — to record its first win of the 2017 season. A three-game sweep at Arizona State, winless appearance in the Mule Mix Classic and series-opening loss at Santa Clara gave the Wildcats a 0-7 record right out of the gate.

But that wasn’t cause for alarm, nor was it particularly surprising.

In the second year of Spencer Allen’s tenure in Evanston, the Big Ten’s most ambitious rebuilding project wasn’t going to be complete overnight. As LeBron James famously said, Rome wasn’t built in one day.

Then, though, something strange happened: Northwestern started to win some games, and when the Wildcats didn’t win, they were competitive in them. They split with Santa Clara and took two of three from Portland.

A midseason six-game skid — including a sweep to Indiana by a total of just six runs — paused the upturn temporarily, which was rebooted when Northwestern got its first home series win of the season against explosive Air Force at the start of April.

Now, after four Big Ten series wins — twice as many as the Wildcats had in 2016 — Northwestern is just days away from making its first Big Ten Tournament appearance since 2010. All that’s standing in their way is a Friday doubleheader against Rutgers.

The Wildcats crushed the Scarlet Knights 14-0 in Thursday’s series opener, and as the No. 7 team in the conference with just two games left to play, Northwestern controls its own postseason destiny.

“It’s tough to believe after how we struggled early in the season, but I think that came to sight halfway through the year against Air Force and Iowa,” senior outfielder Joe Hoscheit said before Wednesday’s practice. Hoscheit said the Big Ten Tournament was a team goal before the season. Now, it’s about to become a reality.

Northwestern is a half-game ahead of No. 8 Purdue, which will essentially play 2.5 games against Minnesota on Friday, and a full game in front of No. 9 Michigan State, which beat Michigan 6-1 on Thursday. The Wildcats hold the tiebreaker over the Boilermakers, but not Michigan State. The top eight seeds in the conference make the tournament.

“Right after our games, we’ll be on the bus checking the scores right away,” freshman starting pitcher Hank Christie said about following the rest of the conference as the season has wound down. “As important as our games are, the others are really important too.”

Christie will get the start in Friday’s Game 1, and the Oak Park native has been a stalwart in the Northwestern rotation in his first year in Evanston. He has allowed three runs or less in his last five starts, going 8+ innings in his last two against Purdue and Maryland.

He’s part of what might be the conference’s most unlikely rotation. The usual Friday night starter, Cooper Wetherbee, is a former walk-on while lanky lefty Matt Gannon is another true freshman. They entered this season with a collective total of four college starts. Joe Schindler and Tommy Bordignon, expected to be the team’s top two pitchers, have only made nine starts this season.

“I keep telling people that I’m glad I didn’t know he was in the band before we offered him a spot,” Allen quipped about Wetherbee, who was in the Northwestern marching band before joining the baseball team and boasts a team-best 3.03 ERA. “It’s a cool story, and he brings a lot to the team on and off the field.”

Without any top recruits or many experienced players, Northwestern has been able to navigate an improved Big Ten. Even when star senior outfielders Matt Hopfner and Joe Hoscheit go 0-for-4, other players — like standout freshman second baseman Alex Erro or third baseman Connor Lind — always seem to step up. It’s a far cry from the 2016 team, which went just 7-17 in conference play and didn’t win its first series until May.

“We’re getting contributions from everyone, which is great,” senior outfielder Matt Hopfner said. “The mindset has kind of changed and we’re figuring out how to win in all ways.

“Obviously every year we’re confident in our team. In a couple of those years, we were competitive right up until the end. This year, we were able to get the winning going earlier and that kind of put us in a good place for where we are now.”

That mix of talented upperclassmen and exciting younger players has, according to Allen, been a catalyst for this surprising season. But, the coach said, that doesn’t mean Rutgers — despite having the Big Ten’s second-worst record — is going to roll over. “We have the opportunity to be in the tournament, but we have to play 27 innings of baseball,” he said on Wednesday. “We’re taking a page out of Chris Collins’ book.”

They’re one-third of the way there, with 18 crucial innings coming up on Friday after Saturday’s game was pushed up a day due to weather. That means the second half of the double-dip is, essentially, Senior Day for Hopfner, Hoscheit, Wetherbee, and the rest of the class.

“It’s definitely sunk in, and we’re trying to cherish every moment,” Hoscheit said about playing his final home game. “But it’s great to know that it’s not the end and we have that end goal of making the Big Ten Tournament, and goals after we make it.”

Emotions could play a role in the most important games for the program in at least seven years, and for a variety of reasons. How will the Wildcats deal with them? A recent visit by Yankees manager and former Northwestern catcher Joe Girardi during New York’s trip to Chicago to play the Cubs might help with that.

According to Hoscheit, senior reliever Richard Fordon asked Girardi — who won three World Series as a player and one as a manager — about how to conduct yourself in pressurized moments at the end of a season.

“He said to trust yourself and stick to your routines,” Hoscheit recounted. “That really helps with the young guys going into big situations.”

Girardi was only a career .184 hitter in the postseason, but with a nearly immaculate 9-3 record in playoff series, he knows a thing or two about big games. Just playing in big games is big for the program, and there should be more to come.

One year after going 15-39, it’s proof that Allen’s rebuild is firmly ahead of schedule.