As a sports writer, I’ve been in the press box for some amazing moments. I’ve seen dozens of buzzer beaters, thousands of goals and hundreds of goal-line stands. In sports, there’s no shortage of fantastic moments that make fans tear out their hair, scream in joy or embrace complete strangers as family.
Yet across all sports, there might not be a moment as impressive as a home run. A raw display of strength and skill, a ballplayer’s pure swing is one of the most difficult things to pull off, requiring concentration, timing and just a bit of luck. A team filled with home-run hitters is often remembered well in history. Just ask the New York Yankees’ “Murderers' Row,” a lineup of hitters feared due to their ability to make contact and score countless runs on their opponents.
While Northwestern baseball (11-10, 7th in B1G) may not strike fears of death in their opponents’ eyes, their hitters are starting to turn heads. Hitting over 45 home runs over just 21 games, the ’Cats have a scary good hitting lineup that could possibly do some damage in a top-heavy Big Ten Conference. But who are the players to watch for here? What about the other part of the sport, pitching? And just how far can home runs carry them this season and beyond? Read on to find out.
’Cats Dig the Long Ball
Let’s get something out of the way early: this Wildcat team is a fun squad to watch, with high scoring affairs and insane offensive displays abound. In one of their victories, Northwestern knocked in a whopping nine home runs to destroy Illinois (8-12, 10th B1G) 16-14. In another, the ’Cats beat Michigan State (11-11, 8th B1G) 7-5 on a three-run walkoff home run.
In 21 games, Northwestern has already batted in 122 runs, with 90 of them coming from five players: junior Anthony Calarco, junior Michael Trautwein, first-year Stephen Hrustich, first-year Vincent Bianchina and junior Shawn Goosenberg. This lineup has often been the key behind Northwestern’s fantastic victories, with insane moonshots and plenty of contact all around.
Often leading off for the ’Cats is Calarco, the everyday first baseman. Calarco has been a stud in the leadoff role, leading the team with 33 hits and a whopping .379 batting average, good for third overall in the Big Ten. Calarco’s ability to get on base has been crucial to Northwestern’s success, with Calarco having scored 25 runs and knocking in 14 with the bat so far, including seven home runs. A leader in all elements, Calarco is critical for Northwestern as they go into further conference play.
Right behind Calarco in the batting order and leading the team is shortstop Shawn Goosenberg, who has a flair for the dramatic, as seen with his legendary walk off against Michigan State, as well as one a few weeks later against Rutgers.
The home runs are two of 10 Goosenberg has hit so far this year, leading the team in long balls. He’s also posted 21 RBIs and 32 hits, and with a .349 batting average, Goosenberg has gotten national attention for his play at the plate and in the field, even winning the Big Ten Player of the Week for both the weeks of March 29 and April 9.
First-year catcher Stephen Hrustich is the baby bomber: the home run hitting baseball player who is quite young. With eight home runs of his own and 19 RBIs, Hrustich is the perfect player to bat third, often cleaning out the base paths with a towering shot. A hard-hitting catcher is a commodity for any team, and Hrustich is already raking, winning the first Big Ten Freshman of the Week this season.
Right behind Hrustich, however, is the team leader in RBIs, junior outfielder Michael Trautwein. Despite having no home runs and a low .213 BA, Trautwein leads the squad with 24 RBIs, a measure of true clutch hitting.
These four players, marking the top of the order for Northwestern, have helped the Wildcats become a nationally feared lineup across the NCAA, hitting the second-most home runs per game with 2.07. The ’Cats are also good at making simple contact, with a .280 team batting average, good for third in the Big Ten. The crew has allowed Northwestern to sit at fifth in the conference, with three series wins.
Unfortunately, as the saying goes: offense sells tickets, but defense wins championships. And there lies the issue for Northwestern.
Son of a Pitch:
It’s a two-sided coin for the ’Cats: while they currently sit at third in the Big Ten in batting, they’re at a cold eighth out of 13 for pitching. Not necessarily the worst, but they have a lot of room for improvement.
It’s very much an underlying issue for Northwestern. While they’ve scored 129 runs over their season, they’ve also allowed 123 runs to be scored on them. They have also suffered some embarrassing defeats, including a 12-3 loss to Michigan State and a 12-8 loss to Illinois, who Northwestern had also had some of their most significant wins. Two sides of the same coin.
There are some bright spots, however. Junior righthander Mike Doherty is a bonafide stud for the ’Cats, already starting six games and posting a 2.52 ERA – good for fourth in the conference. While he’s allowed 35 hits in his five appearances and only struck out 21, Doherty is a workhorse and fantastic at forcing outs, appearing in a conference-second 39.1 innings.
Often following Doherty in the bullpen is senior lefty Quinn Lavelle, who’s played in seven games and started four with a 4-0 record. Also in the pen is sophomore righty Reed Smith, who has appeared in nine games with 13.1 innings pitched. Smith is a reliable stopcork in his own right, posting just a 2.70 ERA and holding offenses down in the middle innings.
Behind Doherty in the starting rotation is junior righthander Tyler Uberstine, who isn’t necessarily fantastic but does deserve a nod for his work. With a 2-2 record over six games started, Uberstine is good for second on the team with 29 innings pitched, an important placeholder for the ’Cats. Unfortunately, his ERA does not match these efforts: 4.66.
As previously mentioned, the ’Cats have been hurt by these pitching struggles, with their most impressive victories coming off the hitters of their lineup. At the halfway point of the season, Northwestern needs to lock down their ace on the mound and find new options if they want a chance at postseason play.
Where the ’Cats go from here:
Baseball is a game played in “series,” meaning that a team plays multiple games against the same opponent, often three or four, and usually comes away with an “overall winner.” Here’s the good news: in seven series played so far this season, Northwestern has won three and tied two.
The bad news? The series in question are not necessarily “quality” opponents. Over their first five series, Northwestern’s highest ranked opponent was Michigan State, a team currently ranked seventh in the Big Ten. While wins against these opponents do set the ’Cats in a higher tier than Michigan State, it does raise questions about the team being a true contender going into the postseason.
The top contenders in the Big Ten currently are Nebraska (15-6), Michigan (15-7), Indiana (13-7), and Ohio State (13-9). Northwestern’s greatest performance against a quality team came against Michigan, a 1-1 series split, but a recent tough series loss to Rutgers (11-9) has the ’Cats outside top contention. Northwestern certainly has their work cut out for them, beginning this weekend with a tough series against Indiana at home. If the ’Cats can overpower the Hoosiers for a series win, we could see the purple going for a Big Ten crown, especially with several key away series coming up: Nebraska the weekend of May 14 and Ohio State the weekend of May 28.
Baseball in Chicago has always been fun. Let’s see if the ’Cats can add to that legacy with a spring of slam.