With the MLB lockout still in full swing and the announcement of postponed Spring Training games, many baseball hounds have turned to the college ranks to get their fill of the sport. Friday’s Opening Day featured highlights from around the country, whether it was Illinois State upsetting No. 2 Arkansas in Fayetteville or No. 21 Georgia Tech earning a walk-off win courtesy of a horrific error in center field. All in all, the first window of games did not disappoint.
However, Northwestern baseball did little to inspire confidence in fans, dropping its debut to UAB 8-7. The Blazers opened a 3-0 lead in the first before Anthony Calarco helped spark a six-run second inning for the ‘Cats, yet UAB tied the game at six before walking it off in the bottom of the ninth. What made things even more painful for NU faithful was ace Mike Doherty getting lit up for six runs (five earned) and posting just two strikeouts in 5.1 IP.
Expectations for the Wildcats should be tempered for 2022, as the spring and summer months look to be another developmental year for interim head coach Josh Reynolds’ squad. In fact, one could argue that Calarco and Doherty are the only proven players, per se, occupying Rocky and Berenice Miller Park this season.
The ‘Cats’ nucleus is rather young, with sophomores Ethan O’Donnell, Tony Livermore and Vincent Bianchina all earning starting roles in the season opener. Last season, the three players combined to suit up in 92 games, earning 81 starting nods – an indication that NU, historically, is not afraid to turn to young talent right away. It should be noted, though, that Reynolds may not follow a similar model.
Although NU’s first lineup card of the season did not feature any rookies, the ‘Cats will almost invariably have to turn to first-years as they make their way through a 55-game season.
6-foot-1 Bennett Markinson figures to headline the list of newcomers atop Reynolds’ pecking order. The California native can play two pivotal positions for the Wildcats in catcher and first base, the former of which is especially noteworthy. During exhibition play in October, Markinson started both games for the ‘Cats.
After transferring from St. Mary’s, JC Santini is in line to be Northwestern’s starting catcher this season. While current Cincinnati Red Michael Trautwein started all 36 matchups a year ago, it feels improbable for Santini to equal that mark during the throes of such a lengthy campaign. Look for Markinson to earn several appearances behind the dish to spell Santini.
Moreover, outfielder Andrew Pinkston should crack the field of play, if not the lineup, at some point this year. Pinkston is a tad undersized at 5-foot-9, but flashes excellent speed, a trait he sharpened as a cornerback and wide receiver in high school. Northwestern’s outfield seems fairly solidified with a some trio of Luke Tanner, O’Donnell, Ruben Fontes and Stephen Hrustich, but a slump could prompt a switch to the youngster.
Pinkston could provide a change of pace for Reynolds’ lineup, as the first-year serves as another true lefty hitter. Also, Pinkston might be used as a pinch runner in pivotal moments.
Bloodlines certainly run deep on this NU squad, as Calarco’s younger brother Alex joins the Wildcats after committing to the program as a high school sophomore. At 6-foot-5, the younger Calarco is a bit taller than his older brother and was the 12th-best prospect in Illinois this past season; it seems like a matter of time before the catcher/infielder hits the diamond.
Turning to the Wildcats’ pitching presents additional opportunity for first-years to demonstrate their filthy stuff this season.
Illinois natives Jacob Scharm and Chad Readey both saw work during fall ball. The two, who are each 6-foot-4 or taller, join Grant Comstock (6-foot-6) in Reynolds’ stable of hulking hurlers.
Another name to circle is Sean Sullivan, who is the only left-handed pitcher on NU’s roster besides senior Parker Hanks. Sullivan could be utilized in matchup-specific situations as a righty specialist.
The mantra for Northwestern baseball in 2022 is that little is well-established, especially in terms of the team’s rotation and bullpen. While such a lack of stars may not translate to consistent victories, it simultaneously provides Reynolds & Co. the chance to evaluate young players – especially those that should round into mainstays.