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Northwestern baseball post-mortem 2023: ‘Cats youngsters show some promise, but the Jim Foster era begins in obscurity

Northwestern finishes with a .200 winning percentage but sees improvement from some key players.

Ryan Kuttler/Northwestern Athletics

For the sixth straight year, Northwestern baseball’s season did not end with a Big Ten Tournament appearance. Instead, it ended with a 4-20 record in conference and a 10-40 overall record which is its worst since 1985.

But this team can’t solely be defined by its wins and losses. Despite how things look, improvements were made from within throughout the season, and Wildcat fans may be in store for brighter days in year two of Jim Foster’s coaching tenure.

The season started with an ill-fated mid-February series against Texas State in sunny San Marcos, Texas. The ‘Cats gave up a whopping 56 runs over the three-game sweep, kicking off a twelve-game losing streak to start the season.

The losing streak was a slog that Northwestern’s team stats never quite recovered from. During that span, the ‘Cats were outscored 150 to 56 by their opponents and were dead last in just about every major statistical category on both sides of the ball.

Forget the Big Ten Tournament, it was unclear whether this team would even win a game.

On March 19th, a month and three days after the start of the streak, the ‘Cats took a trip to Indianapolis to face Butler in a two-game series. After Butler scored in the second inning of the first game, Kevin Ferrer hit a solo homer to tie the game at one apiece. Ferrer came through again in the eighth, reaching on an error that scored a run to give Northwestern a lead that wouldn’t relinquish and win its first game, 5 to 1.

The Wildcats would go on to drop their next six games; a medley of non-conference matchups that led them into their home opener at Rocky and Berenice Miller Park on March 28 against Northern Illinois. They put up seven runs in the second inning to set the tone for this Tuesday afternoon slugfest, and ultimately sent the fans home happy with a 15-11 victory.

They carried some of that momentum into conference play. NU lost two out of three at Purdue, but then came home and took two out of three from Illinois. From that point, the ‘Cats feasted on non-conference competition, going 4-2 against UIC, Northern Illinois, Milwaukee and Notre Dame.

The rest of the season was one to forget. The ‘Cats suffered five consecutive series sweeps before tallying their fourth and final conference win on the second to last day of the season against Iowa. Their last place 4-20 conference record was 3.5 games behind the next worst team and put them 13 games behind Big Ten-leading Maryland.

So what exactly happened to these Wildcats that put them on a path to such a disastrous season? Ultimately, it was a season of transition where everything that could’ve gone wrong seemed to eventually go wrong.

It was supposed to be the dawn of a new era under Coach Foster, who led Army West Point to four conference titles during his head coaching tenure, but his program was torn apart by the sudden resignations of Jon Strauss, Chris Beacom, and Dusty Napoleon in early March.

Regardless of coaching turmoil, it was up to younger players to step into roles vacated by the transfers of Anthony Calarco, Jay Beshears, Patrick Herrera, Ethan O’Donnell and Sean Sullivan. Some rose to the occasion, while others experienced growing pains.

Offensively, Northwestern finished dead last in all three triple-slash categories with its .246 batting average, .342 on-base percentage, and .378 slugging percentage making them approximately 44 percent worse than a league-average hitter as a team by OPS+.

On the pitching side, things may have been even worse. Their 8.53 team ERA was the worst in the league by more than two full runs. Hitters hit an abysmal .314 against them, which was in turn the worst opponent batting average in the Big Ten by 31 points.

But that is not to say that this team’s future is bleak. With a full coaching staff and strong follow-up seasons by some of the team’s breakout youngsters, the ‘Cats could find themselves hovering near .500 in 2024.

Sophomore slugger Alex Calarco showed the team what he could do with a full season of starting opportunities, slashing a much improved .287/.363/.455 and hitting four homers. The switch-hitter also excelled in his time catching behind the plate.

On the mound, both junior David Utagawa and first-year Sam Garewal showed some promise. Utagawa struck out four times as many batters as he walked, which was the best ratio on the team. Garewal’s 21.6% strikeout rate was the best out of NU pitchers who threw at least 40 innings, and his ERA of 5.69 was just below the league average.

Players, coaches, and fans alike probably want to put this 2023 season in the rearview mirror. And with strong performances from its burgeoning core in 2024, the ‘Cats can make the 2023 season a forgettable one pretty quickly.