As winter slowly (and I mean slowly) comes to an end on the beaches of Lake Michigan, Northwestern spring sports are ready to get back in action. With baseball getting its start down in Arizona later this afternoon, let’s take a look at how the ‘Cats will look to perform this year after 2019’s campaign:
The ‘Cats’ 2019 season was essentially as mediocre as it gets, posting a 24-27 overall record and an 11-13 mark in the Big Ten. While they were able to pull at least one victory in most of their series throughout the year, they struggled to compete consistently in each outing, only taking 4 of their 14 series last spring.
NU was led in batting by shortstop Jack Dunn, who hit .340 with 65 hits and 36 RBI, albeit no home runs. Dunn was one of three Wildcats selected in the MLB Draft last spring, alongside pitcher Nick Paciorek and infielder Alex Erro.
The ‘Cats utilized a host of pitchers last season, with Quinn Lavelle, Parker Hanks, and Mike Doherty sharing the bulk of the starting by the end of the year. Projected ace Hank Christie battled injuries all of last year and never quite got his feet under him, making life difficult for NU on the mound all year.
The ‘Cats ended up finishing 9th in the Big Ten, falling to Minnesota by one run on the final day of the season and thus just missing a change to play in the Big Ten Tournament by a single game. While the season wasn’t great, it was definitely a step in the right direction from their 2018 outing, improving their overall win total by seven games.
Key losses, gains, and returners
Losing Jack Dunn and Willie Bourbon will make a dent in the team’s batting production, as the two were both among the top six on the team in nearly every batting statistic. Erro’s decision to forego his senior season and enter the MLB Draft (he’s now with the Red Sox) will also make an impact as well. Dunn, Bourbon, and Erro were the only players on last year’s squad with 30+ RBI seasons. Runs could be hard to come by this season.
The ‘Cats may be able to add some hitting power this year as well, with incoming freshman Luke Tanner and Evan Minarovic both posting solid batting averages in their senior years of high school. Power at the plate has always been a struggle with this team, and NU will need it badly this year if they have any chance of cracking the Top 8 and making the Big Ten Tournament.
The team has a nice returning sophomore core of David Dunn, Michael Trautwein and Shawn Goosenberg, who will likely be the glue of this team moving forward. Goosenberg and Trautwein received preseason Big Ten honors after impressive true freshman campaigns. The team also returns its home run leader of 2019 in Casey O’Laughlin, who blasted five bombs out of the park throughout last season. Senior Leo Kaplan has flashed some serious power throughout his career, but has never quite found the consistency at the plate he’s been looking for. 2020 will be his final chance to do so.
On the mound, all aforementioned starters will be returning, bringing a good amount of depth and experience to the team. The main (and only) loss is undoubtedly hard-throwing reliever Nick Paciorek, who was selected by the Yankees in the seventh round of last year’s draft. The strikeout pitcher kept Northwestern in so many games last year after shaky starting pitching, and his loss cannot be understated.
NU will also bring in five new RHP in Tyler Uberstine, Jack Dyke, Coby Moe, Jack Sauser, and Reed Smith. It’s exciting to see a bunch of new arms entering the mix, and Uberstine has already an emerged as a name to keep an eye out for as he’ll be starting on the bump to close this weekend’s series against Nebraska-Omaha on Sunday.
Sophomore Mike Doherty, who finished 2019 with a solid 2.43 ERA in conference play, will be the team’s opening day starter on Friday. The junior southpaw Lavelle will get the nod on Saturday.
As the team has suffered some key losses with Paciorek, Erro, and Dunn all gone for the MLB, NU baseball will most likely take a slight step back from last season. Losing your best pitcher and two best hitters is not a recipe success, although this team still does have a few exciting young pieces to build off of. Pitching, as is usually the case, also remains a prime area for concern.
The Wildcats have a healthy amount of returning production at key spots, but they’ll most likely be lacking the power to get over the hump in 2020, and will probably be on the outside looking in on the Big Ten Tournament. B1G baseball is relatively mediocre and fluid though, so anything can happen. We’re only three season removed from Northwestern’s miracle 2017 run to the Big Ten Championship that nearly saw the ‘Cats steal a spot in the NCAA Tournament. Maybe 2020 has some of that same magic in store.
The Wildcats’ season officially gets underway Friday at 4:00 p.m. central against the Mavericks of Nebraska-Omaha. The series will take place in Glendale, Arizona, and all games can be listened via wnursports.com.