In his inaugural session with the media, new Northwestern baseball head coach Jim Foster was, well, forthright.
“Northwestern baseball hasn’t been good. Ever,” Foster said. “We’re gonna make it good [really quickly], as quick as I can possibly do.”
If Foster speaks from a self-assured perspective, it’s because his resume more than supports that claim. The 51-year-old reached the NCAA Tournament four times during his six-year tenure with the Army Black Knights. For context, the Wildcats have made it to the postseason just once: 1957.
Regarding why Foster left West Point for Evanston, the coach highlighted wanting to solidify NU as a mecca not only in terms of resources, but also in terms of on-field play.
“Ready for the next challenge,” Foster said, also mentioning wanting to prioritize his family. “I’ve always felt like Northwestern has a lot of upside. You see how beautiful the facilities are. There’s some great people that work here. I just need to do my job, and hopefully we can make it what I think it can be.”
However, a challenge certainly lies ahead for the Rhode Island native.
Last year, the ‘Cats finished 24-27 and tied for eighth in the Big Ten, but missed out on the Big Ten Tournament due to tiebreakers — meaning the team has still not qualified for such postseason action since 2017. Despite optimism around a promising nucleus, Northwestern witnessed the departures of marquee talents OF Ethan O’Donnell (Virginia), OF Jay Beshears (Duke), LHP Sean Sullivan (Wake Forest), 1B Anthony Calarco (Ole Miss) and INF Patrick Herrera (Kentucky).
In light of a mass exodus of sorts, the Wildcats have 16 new faces dotting their roster this season, including nine transfer additions. Nonetheless, Foster is encouraged by what he’s seen from his squad.
“It’s definitely been better than what I expected from a player standpoint,” Foster said. “They’re hungry. They’re great guys. Their willingness to learn has been impressive. They make adjustments quick.”
Grad transfer outfielder Kevin Ferrer saw his UConn Huskies reach the Super Regional last season. Lefty Ryan Keenan arrives from pantheon Vanderbilt. It’s not just high-level programs, though: Foster feels that even players from Division II and III programs are eager to prove themselves and create continuity.
“I think we brought some good ones in to build a culture. Guys that are really gonna lay that good foundation for how to act in a locker room, how to do things on and off the field, how to play the game the right way,” Foster said. “We got a good mix of talent and guys that are hungry.”
Per Foster, junior transfer Matt McClure from Loyola Marymount will “probably” serve as the team’s Saturday starter, while Luke Benneche will be key in ousting lefties with a strong changeup. Foster also said that North Park transfer pitcher Ethan Sund “just keeps getting better.”
The Wildcats certainly do return a chunk of players, too. The team introduced junior infielder Vince Bianchina, senior power hitter Stephen Hrustich and pitcher David Utawaga as captains, something which Foster mentioned was nascent. Further, Foster noted the reliance on sophomore catcher Alex Calarco for power, as well as the gym effort and energy of sophomore outfielder Andrew Pinkston.
In recent years, Northwestern has emphasized a power-centric approach on offense, especially buoyed by the bat of Calarco. However, the Wildcats’ new leader is focused on more of a “small ball” approach grounded in pitching and defense.
“We’re gonna bunt. We’re gonna run,” Foster said. “If they give us something, we’re gonna take it. We’re gonna make the pitcher move. Hopefully, we can create some big innings, some crooked numbers that way, because we can’t just go up there and expect three-run home runs. It’ll be balanced.”
For much of recent memory, NU’s pitching staff has been its Achilles’ heel. Foster is intent on changing that, especially by reducing walk rates.
“You see the walks here, and just the way that it’s been done. Freebies determined the game,” Foster said. “I think that’ll be the strength of our team, figuring out our pitching staff.”
Despite the departure of Sullivan, Farinelli returns to Rocky and Berenice Miller Park after posting a team-best 4.43 ERA across 87.1 innings pitched, along with three complete games. Foster is impressed with the graduate student, expecting him to be the team’s ace — and even comparing his breaking ball to Yankees reliever Michael King, whom he coached at Boston College.
“He goes about his business as good as anybody,” Foster said. “I think he’s gonna be able to shoulder that responsibility of going out there and pitching against the other best pitchers in the Big Ten. He’s gonna get a lot of ground balls. He’s not gonna blow you away, but he’s gonna do a good job, giving you a competitive start every time he goes out there.”
Given the recent woes of the program, as well as collective unknown with a motley roster, skepticism around Northwestern exists entering 2023. D1 Baseball, for instance, selected the Wildcats to finish last in the Big Ten. The new head coach certainly feels the need for development is paramount.
“It’s a complex puzzle,” Foster said. “It’ll take me a year or two to get it going.”
At the same time, Foster posited that his yearly goals of winning 30 or more games, playing in a Regional and attempting to make it to a Super Regional will persist “as long as I’m here.” If the Wildcats can execute as they anticipate, Foster believes those lofty aspirations may not be so far out of reach.
“Nothing’s better than nobody expecting you to do anything, and then all of a sudden, you go out there and surprise some people,” Foster said. “We’ll play together and we’ll play hard. When you do that, you never know what can happen.”