The Northwestern Wildcats baseball team came into the 2020 season looking to improve upon a 24-27 (11-13 B1G) record, itself a seven-win improvement from the previous season.
Gone were Willie Bourbon, Jack Dunn, and Alex Erro, the three players leading the team in runs batted in for 2019. Returning with a strong core of sophomores and a pinch of pitching consistency, the ‘Cats looked to go over .500 in conference play for the first time since their miraculous Big Ten Tournament run in 2017.
With the loss the three biggest run-producers on the team as well as its best relief pitcher, Nick Paciorek, expectations were perhaps tempered for the ‘Cats, even here at Inside NU. However, NU’s abbreviated 2020 schedule saw some great signs of promise and some solid wins. The team ended the year abruptly with a record of 6-7, all those games but one coming on road trips to warmer weather states.
The ‘Cats opened up in Arizona against the University of Nebraska-Omaha, dropping the first two games 5-4 and 9-2. A 3-run double from Shawn Goosenberg propelled the ‘Cats to their first victory of the season with a score of 7-2 in the series finale and kept the Omaha brooms in the closet.
Northwestern then went down to the heart of SEC country to take on the Gamecocks of the University of South Carolina. In the series opener, a good performance from both Doherty and the bullpen kept the USC offense in check while clutch hitting in extras from freshmen Evan Minarovic and Stephen Hrustich earned the ‘Cats a 5-2 victory. The Gamecocks took the next contest easily, jumping on Lavelle early to win 12-3.
The series finale saw the ‘Cats fight back from an early deficit to win in extras once more, Charlie Maxwell drawing a bases-loaded walk to bring home the go-ahead run in the top of the 10th.
That series win over South Carolina gave the ‘Cats a sense of optimism, subsequently crushed by a road sweep at the hands of the South Florida Bulls. Doherty pitched well, but the ‘Cats offense floundered after the first inning to fall 2-1 in the opening game of the series. Sophomore Tyler Uberstine threw five innings of one-hit ball but the ‘Cats lost by the same score in game two of series, another pitcher’s duel. The Bulls brought the brooms out and won the finale 10-5 as the ‘Cats left Orlando with nothing.
The ‘Cats responded to the sweep by winning three straight against UIC, Western Carolina, and USC-Upstate before falling it what would become their season’s final contest to the Spartans of Upstate South Carolina in an offensive showdown, 11-9.
Northwestern was meant to host two games against Kent State at Rocky and Berenice Miller Park on the 13th of March before opening Big Ten play for a three game series the following week. Unfortunately, the season was cancelled just days before the scheduled home opener.
Senior Charlie Maxwell led the team offensively in run production with a .315 batting average and 9 RBIs in all 13 games. Shawn Goosenberg hit .444 in 10 games (6 starts), but also added 7 RBIs himself. Goosenberg also led the team in slugging, while sophomores Michael Trautwein and David Dunn led the team with two homers apiece.
On the mound, Mike Doherty started four games and finished with a 1-0 record and an impressive 0.86 ERA, while averaging only a baserunner per inning. Lavelle, who was tagged for 8 runs against South Carolina, finished with an 0-2 record and an 13.50 ERA — not the junior campaign he was hoping for.
Ultimately, the ‘Cats did not necessarily shake the mediocrity of last season. Taking two of three against an SEC opponent was a huge boost, while eight dingers in the first 13 games, after 21 the previous season, a majority coming from guys no longer on the team, shows key signs of offensive progress for a program that has long struggled to play power baseball.
Trautwein, Goosenberg, Doherty, and Lavelle will all return next season. Maxwell and former White Sox draft pick Leo Kaplan will both be gone if the NCAA does not implement an extra year of eligibility for spring athletes.
Could the ‘Cats have made a run in the Big Ten this season? Unfortunately, we’ll never know. They certainly showed signs of promise from guys returning, perhaps a sign that brighter days are ahead for this program.