Head coach Spencer Allen looks to propel Northwestern baseball to new heights in his sixth season, which begins this Friday with a four-game series against Penn State at a neutral site in Minneapolis. The Wildcats will play 44 games in 2021, all against conference opponents.
While Northwestern returns many key contributors from the abbreviated 2020 season, the team will need to rely on its pitching staff and find a breakout bat or two in order to finish with a winning conference record for the first time since 2017, when it appeared in the Big Ten Conference Championship Game. In a wide-open conference, Northwestern has a chance to surprise some people in 2021 and emerge as a legitimate baseball threat.
Northwestern flirted with the .500 mark for much of the 2019 season, and the same rang true during non-conference play in 2020 before the pandemic ended the college baseball season. Though a series win against SEC opponent South Carolina showed promise, the Wildcat offense faltered in some key contests and ultimately resulted in a 6-7 record.
Despite the inconsistency, Northwestern’s offense showed more power than in years past, hitting eight home runs in just 13 games. A team batting average of .239 left much to be desired in terms of run support, particularly by the pitching staff. Three of the Wildcats’ top five innings contributors managed to post an ERA under 3.00, but the bullpen remained scattered. While no one facet of their 2020 performance presents glaring issues, all facets must improve in order to compete for a Big Ten title.
Northwestern will be without their top run-producer from 2020 in second baseman Charlie Maxwell. The Evanston native was a rare model of consistency last year, hitting .315 in 57 at-bats and registering a hit in 11 of 13 games. He also drove in a team-leading nine runs. The four-year starter made strides with his bat but opted not to take advantage of the extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA.
Also leaving the Wildcats is utility first baseman/designated hitter Jack Anderson. Though he started 10 games for Northwestern in 2020, Anderson struggled to get much going with the bat, ending the season 7-for-33 with three runs batted in. Strikeouts were an issue for Anderson, as he recorded just 14 Ks. Anderson entered the transfer portal this summer and ultimately chose to play at State College of Florida, Manatee-Sarasota. Northwestern will need more production from their everyday DH to compete in 2021.
Potential replacements for Maxwell and Anderson begin with two first-year infielders, Vincent Bianchina and Jay Beshears. Bianchina, a former two-sport athlete, led his high school team to a No. 2 national ranking while batting .416 his junior year. He brings offensive potential to the clubhouse and could be a leader of the team in the coming years.
Beshears, on the other hand, could make contributions to the team in his first year in both the infield and on the mound. While his build is tall and lanky, he shows good bat speed and could benefit from a Division-I training program. While his velocity on his fastball isn’t overpowering, a slider with plus-movement makes him a good developmental candidate.
The biggest strength of the Northwestern roster is their starting pitching, led by the one-two punch of Mike Doherty and Tyler Uberstine. Doherty will return as the team’s ace, coming off a 2020 season in which he finished with a 0.86 ERA. He led the team in strikeouts, fanning 20 in his four starts, and should immediately slot in as a consistent Friday starter.
Uberstine also started four games in 2020, allowing just 12 hits in 22 innings, good for a 0.86 WHIP. Uberstine tops out in the low 90s with his fastball but will need to improve his secondary offerings if he wants to compete on the level of Doherty.
Shortstop Shawn Goosenberg is the best candidate to be the impact bat the Wildcats need to make a run to the postseason. Goosenberg made the most of his 10 appearances in 2020, six of them starts, leading the team in average (.444), extra-base hits (four), slugging percentage (.704) and OPS (1.204). He will consistently be slotted into the middle of the order and hopefully replace some of the lost production from Maxwell.
Catcher Michael Trautwein will provide solid defense behind the plate, while also contributing some power to the lineup — he finished 2020 with a pair of homers, tied for the team lead with center fielder David Dunn.
Being two years removed from conference play means it’s hard to know what to expect from the Big Ten this year. With their rotation anchored by Doherty and Uberstine, Northwestern should remain competitive in many of their games, but they’ll need a step forward from their third starter Quinn Lavelle to avoid a loss every third day. The ‘Cats lineup will also need to see improvements from some of their younger players to avoid close losses, and while Goosenberg’s arc is promising, it will take more than that to keep Northwestern on the winning side of things.
While Michigan and Ohio State may boast deeper pitching staffs and Maryland and Indiana better lineups, Northwestern could sneak into conversations with the right amount of over-performance and luck. However, the safer bet is a 2021 season of growth, which may end up with the Wildcats back in the bottom half of the conference.