As February neared a close, Northwestern baseball looked like it was on a collision course for a woeful season. The Wildcats sat at 1-7 after being swept by UAB and losing three of four to Santa Clara. It seemed it would take a miracle for the team to reach .500, let alone 15 wins.
Fast forward two months, and Josh Reynolds has rallied his contingent to a diametrically different zone. After taking two of three from Michigan State this weekend, the ‘Cats are 18-17 and have won three of their four Big Ten series, good for an even 6-6 conference record. If NU can stay above .500, it would be its first time ending a season with a winning mark since the turn of the century: 2000.
With 16 games in the regular season remaining, Northwestern is situated at sixth in the Big Ten standings, behind Rutgers, Illinois, Maryland, Iowa and Michigan. If Reynolds’ team is able to maintain its current position, it would be the highest conference finish for the Wildcats since 2017 — the last time they made the Big Ten Tournament.
Held in Omaha, Nebraska, the Big Ten Tournament features the top eight teams in the conference; 2022 will mark the first time the event has been held in three years. The ‘Cats have a bit of wiggle room with Penn State (7-8 B1G), Nebraska (5-7) and Purdue (4-6) in the rearview mirror, especially since the team holds a head-to-head tiebreaker over the Nittany Lions.
Looking at the numbers bolsters the idea that Northwestern is one of the top eight teams in the conference.
On the offensive end, NU ranks third with a .463 slugging percentage, fifth with 43 home runs, second with 20 sacrifice hits and seventh in overall runs scored. The team has also eschewed striking out, its 285 Ks ranking fourth-best, and it has avoided neutralizing scoring opportunities by hitting into just 16 double plays. Moreover, in terms of pure hitters, Ethan O’Donnell, Anthony Calarco and Jay Beshears form one of the more formidable triads to start the order, and the lineup possesses depth in Stephen Hrustich, Bennett Markinson, Vince Bianchina and others.
Pitching is where elements can grow concerning. The Wildcats have been spearheaded by first-year wunderkind Sean Sullivan, his 2.68 ERA fifth-best in the conference and his 65 punchouts tied for fifth. Further, grad transfer Michael Farinelli has been a workhorse; Farinelli is the only NU pitcher to eclipse 60 innings pitched and continuously goes deep into games, his economical 8.1-inning outing against the Spartans on Saturday the most recent example.
At the same time, Reynolds is still looking to establish rotation depth. First-years Grant Comstock and Jacob Scharm have emerged as “Sunday” and “Tuesday” starters, per se, but both have ERAs over five. Additionally, Northwestern’s bullpen lacks few consistent options, as high-leverage relievers Coby Moe and David Utagawa have struggled as the season has progressed. All in all, the ‘Cats’ 5.10 ERA is fifth in the Big Ten, yet their 248 strikeouts are the far fewest.
Given Northwestern’s performance thus far and a generally forgiving schedule ahead, it is more than feasible for this team to reach Omaha.
In the last month and a half, NU has generally taken care of business, cruising against non-conference and Power Five teams such as UIC, Roosevelt and Saint Louis. Given the rigor of the conference schedule, the Wildcats must continue seizing any easier win they can get. In other words, Northwestern must win its remaining home-and-home against UW-Milwaukee and its road trip to UIC if it wants to remain in conference contention.
In regard to the upcoming Big Ten series, the ‘Cats have a daunting task this weekend, traveling to College Park to face 32-8 Maryland. Besides that, though, NU has home series with 13-23 Ohio State (3-10 B1G) and 22-13 Purdue (4-6) before concluding the season at 11-26 Minnesota (2-10). Simply put, the Wildcats have to win their final three Big Ten series and should, in all honesty, attempt to sweep the Buckeyes, Boilermakers and Golden Gophers – something they couldn’t do with the Spartans.
At this moment, we know Northwestern is a solid all-around team that has dramatically turned the corner since earlier in the season. The Wildcats have fared well against lower Big Ten competition; the questions arise against the upper-tier teams, as NU was swept by Illinois last weekend. If the ‘Cats are to make the Big Ten Tournament, they likely will battle with one of the goliaths in the early rounds, a daunting task for which few answers have yet been found.
With a deep overall lineup, two top-of-the-line starting pitchers and an infusion of young talent, Northwestern is suited to play in the postseason for the first time in five years. If the ‘Cats handle business for the remainder of the regular slate, they should knock the monkey off their back — and could even make a run in Omaha.