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Northwestern baseball post-mortem 2022: ‘Cats ride on a bevy of young talent in up-and-down season

Despite missing the Big Ten Tournament for the fourth straight season, the Wildcats have a bright future.

NUSports.com

If you only looked at Northwestern’s first 12 games in 2022, it would seem as if the Wildcats weren’t just going to be subpar; rather, you would wonder if they could win any Big Ten contests later in the season.

Through the first dozen matchups, the ‘Cats went 2-10. They had lost their first five games by a combined 24 runs and won just one of three at both Santa Clara and Cincinnati. Things looked bleaker than early-March weather in Evanston.

However, opening day at Rocky and Berenice Miller Park awoke Northwestern from its slumber. The Wildcats swept St. Thomas and Evansville, the latter a team coming off a road thrashing of Tulane.

When NU took two of three in Bloomington against Indiana, it appeared the ‘Cats would finally break their merciless five-year postseason absence. From early April onward, Josh Reynolds’ team was right in the mix with the top eight squads in the Big Ten.

Two series later, though, Northwestern was barely hanging on to its tournament hopes.

From April 15 to 17, the Wildcats ventured to Champaign, Ill. to battle the Fighting Illini. In game one of a weekend with major postseason implications, the ‘Cats took a 5-4 lead in the top of the ninth courtesy of a Jay Beshears grand slam — all that only for reliever Coby Moe to give up a walk-off win to Illinois in the following half-inning. From there, Northwestern lost the remaining two matchups of the series.

The other fatal result this season came in early May, when the ‘Cats hosted Ohio State. The Buckeyes entered with the second-worst conference record yet exploded for 39 runs in a two-game doubleheader on May 7. OSU ultimately swept the series, earning a 6-5 win the next day.

That being said, based on the cumulative statistics and overall talent of the team, Northwestern should have made the Big Ten Tournament.

Offensively, the Wildcats were in the B1G’s top eight in batting average, runs scored, doubles, home runs, walks and slugging. Powered by a second All-Big Ten season from Ethan O’Donnell, breakout campaigns from Beshears and All-Big Ten Second Team pick Patrick Herrera along with the veteran leadership of Anthony Calarco, NU had top-of-the-lineup firepower worthy of competing with the best.

In terms of pitching, things were a bit shakier in Evanston. The Wildcats’ team ERA of 6.60 was third-worst in the conference, and the team’s 338 strikeouts were the fewest in the conference. Reynolds’ bullpen was especially liable, totaling just six saves all year with no reliever having an ERA below 5.40. At the same time, Northwestern had a solid one-two starting punch in All-Big Ten Freshman Team selection Sean Sullivan and grad transfer Michael Farinelli.

The Wildcats showed their ability to beat solid squads in the conference. NU took two of three against six-seed Penn State and eight-seed Indiana, plus had victories against seven-seed Purdue and one-seed Maryland. So, why didn’t Northwestern end its dry spell?

That question remains one with few answers. Of course, a portion of the blame falls on interim head coach Josh Reynolds, who took over for veteran Spencer Allen last May. Reynolds should be commended for his team’s resilience following its early-season woes, but Northwestern went 4-9 in its last 13 games — the second straight season in which the ‘Cats have collapsed down the stretch.

Whether Reynolds maintains Northwestern’s head coach is also up in the air. Per Kendall Rogers, NU will search for head coaching options, but Reynolds could still be in the fold. One possible option includes Greg Beals, who parted ways with Ohio State after 12 years at the helm.

Besides solidifying its head coach, NU will likely have to brace for the departure of longtime first baseman Anthony Calarco, who figures to test the waters in the MLB Draft. The Wilmette native led Northwestern with 13 home runs in 2022 and posted an All-Big Ten First Team season the year before.

It will also be intriguing to monitor what the Wildcats do at catcher. With grad transfer J.C. Santini out of the mix, which sophomore — Bennett Markinson or Alex Calarco — will be the primary backstop? Whichever isn’t picked to be the starting catcher could pivot to first base, while newcomer Braden Pollack could also be in play at first.

Northwestern’s pitching staff will yet again search for consistency. The ‘Cats will look to Sullivan to take advanced steps in his sophomore campaign and are set to retain Farinelli, but a refined third starter is needed.

NU has no shortage of arms, including Grant Comstock, Jacob Scharm, Chad Readey, Moe, Ben Grable and David Utagawa, plus incoming recruits Sam Garewal and Drew Dickson, but stability at the back-end of the rotation and in the bullpen is crucial. In fact, the Wildcats’ pitching staff hasn’t had a pitcher with an ERA lower than 3.50 since 2020.

With a nucleus of O’Donnell, Beshears, Herrera, Sullivan, Markinson, Andrew Pinkston and more, Northwestern should vie yet again for Big Ten Tournament contention in 2023. That being said, the team’s head coaching selection will ultimately indicate the ceiling of this team’s potential next season.