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Northwestern baseball preview: Wildcats look for consistency from experienced bats, new arms

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The ‘Cats look to start the season as hot as they finished 2017

NUSports.com

Northwestern’s run to the Big Ten tournament’s championship game earned some gaudy descriptions.

“Improbable.”

“Surprising.”

“A miracle.”

For head coach Spencer Allen, the Wildcats’ trip to the edge of the NCAA tournament was just baseball.

“Baseball is a tricky game and we proved that, that you can play good baseball late and be in the mix late, up until the final game,” Allen said earlier this week.

The Wildcats won 21 of their final 33 games in 2017 and finished one win shy of their first NCAA tournament berth since 1957, an impressive turnaround after a 6-18 start to the season.

According to Allen and associate head coach Josh Reynolds, the newest challenge is consistency. The final two months of the 2017 season were exciting, but not program-defining.

“I think guys are expecting to win now,” Reynolds said. “They had fun winning and they saw that winning is hard, but it’s also fun. Hopefully we can just get on a roll and start the season in that fashion this year.”

For the fourth season in a row, Northwestern will head to Arizona to kick off its season this weekend, weather providing. The Wildcats will play four games against Nebraska-Omaha before facing Kansas and Texas, two of the top Big 12 programs, on the road over the following two weekends. Northwestern’s first home game is scheduled for March 10 against Mac Murray College.

The attention turns to making up for lost production, especially in the middle of the lineup. The Wildcats return six players from last year’s lineup, but the two holes in the lineup loom large. Outfielders Joe Hoscheit (.356/.436/.557) and Matt Hopfner (.301/.368/.447) carried Northwestern’s offense at times last season, something Allen acknowledged but remained optimistic about.

“I think we have a chance to be more competitive one through nine,” Allen said. “We have a little bit more team speed which I am excited about.”

On the mound, the focus will be on throwing strikes. Walks and wild pitches led to a host of free bases for opponents last season, especially early on. While roles are still fluid early in the season, three pitchers who have never started a collegiate game will get the ball this weekend behind Friday starter Hank Christie.

According to Reynolds, junior Danny Katz and freshmen Ryan Bader and Quinn Lavelle demonstrated an ability to pound the strike zone this offseason.

“We’re going with the four guys I mentioned earlier because they were the most consistent guys leading up to this first weekend,” Reynolds said. “They’re gonna attack the zone, they’re gonna throw strikes, we’re not gonna beat ourselves.”

Reynolds noted Bader and Lavelle, both left-handers, have demonstrated an ability to locate multiple pitches for strikes and maintain their composure. Christie, who Reynolds compared Lavelle to, advised his rotation maters to reign themselves in during their first collegiate starts.

“It’s so easy to get into a game and try to throw as hard as you can, which is the first thing I would say,” Christie said. “If you have been an 85 [mph] guy your whole life, don’t try to be a 90 [mph] guy. It doesn’t work, and I can tell them that firsthand.”

Here’s a look at Northwestern’s depth in the infield, outfield, and on the mound this season, with some notes from availability Tuesday.

Infield

Infield (2017 stats)

Name Position Year Starts Slash line Home runs Steals
Name Position Year Starts Slash line Home runs Steals
Alex Erro 2B So. 55 .275/.324/.386 5 7
Jack Dunn SS Jr. 57 .231/.333/.264 0 11
Connor Lind 3B Sr. 53 .255/.336/.348 3 4
Jack Claeys C Sr. 39 .250/.365/.379 3 4
Willie Bourbon 1B Jr. 37 .164/.248/.236 2 3
Charlie Maxwell UTL So. 23 .200/.287/.233 0 8
Nick Paciorek C Fr. 27 .160/.261/.247 1 2

On the infield, the Wildcats return all five starters, highlighted by second baseman Alex Erro, who launched five home runs and logged a 17-game hit streak during his freshman campaign.

Both Erro and his double play partner, junior Jack Dunn, were named to the Big Ten Preseason Honors List.

Dunn enters his junior season having started all 111 games Northwestern has played over the past two seasons. He played 72 more— in 76 days— as a member of the Lakeshore Chinooks of the Northwoods League this summer.

“It really taught my body how to deal with the soreness and playing day-to-day and to play loose, play with a growth mindset, treat each day like a new day,” Dunn said.

The Wildcats’ depth is strongest around the infield, but freshman catcher Jack Kelly could push himself into the mix. The Minnesota native was the sixth-best prospect in the state according to Perfect Game, and Kelly’s left-handed bat could provide a valuable platoon advantage over the course of a grueling season. Nick Paciorek earned 27 starts as a freshman even though he scuffled at the plate at times, so Kelly should expect to get a few starts to show off what he’s got.

Outfield

Outfield (2017 stats)

Name Position Year Starts Slash line Home runs Steals
Name Position Year Starts Slash line Home runs Steals
Leo Kaplan LF/DH So. 22 .287/.313/.491 4 6
Ben Dickey OF Jr. 36 .237/.355/.263 0 10
Kyle Burnett Jr. OF So. 2 .267/.313/.333 0 0

Allen singled out Leo Kaplan as a hitter who improved considerably during the offseason. The sophomore displayed prodigious power as the season progressed and will anchor the middle of the Wildcat batting order as a corner outfielder or at designated hitter.

The third outfield spot is up for grabs. As the more experienced player, Kyle Burnett Jr. figures to get the first shot at it. Behind him, freshman David Dunn, the speedy younger brother of Jack, and Casey O’Laughlin, a freshman from Glen Ellyn, should get some at-bats as well.

Pitchers

Pitchers (2017 stats)

Name Year Games (Starts) Record Innings Pitched ERA Strikeouts Walks
Name Year Games (Starts) Record Innings Pitched ERA Strikeouts Walks
Sam Lawrence So. 23 (0) 5-3 47.1 2.85 24 12
Tyler Lass Jr. 17 (0) 2-0 20.2 3.92 17 11
Hank Christie So. 15 (15) 5-4 83 4.01 53 19
Josh Levy So. 15 (2) 4-2 36.1 4.95 35 28
Matt Gannon So. 13 (11) 0-4 41.1 6.1 20 20
Danny Katz Jr. 13 (0) 1-0 20 6.75 15 3
JR Reimer Sr. 16 (0) 0-2 18.2 8.68 15 22
Tommy Bordignon Sr. 14 (6) 1-4 32 9.28 24 34
Nick Cauley So. 11 (0) 0-1 10.1 7.84 7 5
Richard Fordon Sr. 18 (0) 0-0 13.2 12.51 16 7

Christie was a bulldog for the ‘Cats last season, leading the team in innings pitched on his way to All-Big Ten Freshman recognition. The Oak Park native said he spent the offseason working on his stamina so he can accomplish two goals this season: completing six innings each start, and starting every Friday night game for Northwestern.

Katz, Bader and Lavelle will have the first chance at filling the roles that now-graduated starters Cooper Wetherbee and Josh Davis held last season. Wary of some of the inverted K:BB ratios from 2017, throwing strikes will be key, especially with an experienced infield returning.

Out of the bullpen, expect Sam Lawrence, JR Reimer, and Tommy Bordignon to get the lion’s share of innings early in the season. Lawrence was fantastic in the fireman’s role towards the end of the season, earning All-Big Ten Tournament recognition after completing three outings without allowing a run.

Reimer and Bordignon struggled mightily with control last season, but Allen and Reynolds pointed to the pair of seniors as the two pitchers who developed significantly during the offseason. Reimer will open the season in the closer’s role, according to Reynolds.