By Jack McKessy
The Northwestern Wildcats (30-13, 11-5 Big Ten) continue their Big Ten campaign against the University of Iowa Hawkeyes (19-26, 5-11 Big Ten) in a three-game series this weekend, hoping to extend their eight-game win streak (and Iowa’s nine game losing streak) even further. The Wildcats took two of three games from the Hawkeyes to end the regular season last year, with a loss in eleven innings rounding out the series.
The Hawkeyes arrive to Evanston on Friday boasting a pitching staff among the best in the Big Ten. Their ERA of 2.18, 1.9 walks/game and 273 strikeouts all rank at third best in the conference. The biggest issue with Iowa’s play recently has not been their pitching. Of the 56 runs they’ve given up in their losing streak, only 36 have been earned.
Meanwhile, the Wildcats’ pitchers enter with a 3.82 ERA (10th in the Big 10), 156 walks (nearly twice that of Iowa’s total of 85), and 204 strikeouts. And yet, the Wildcats have the third longest active winning streak in the Big Ten.
The red-hot Wildcats will have to keep up their good energy and winning mentality offensively against a pitching staff among the strongest in the conference. However, the Hawkeyes have lost nine straight for a couple reasons, and the first reason is…
Yes, Iowa has good pitchers. But even the best pitchers will have a hard time stringing together wins if the players behind them can’t record outs themselves. Iowa has a .944 fielding percentage in conference play, while its opponents are fielding with an efficiency of .969. As mentioned earlier, 20 out of the 56 runs the Hawkeyes have given up to opponents during their nine game losing streak have been unearned. So while Iowa’s pitching is a bright spot despite their rough record, the team will have to overcomes their fielding woes if they hope to stay in games, especially close ones.
Meanwhile, Northwestern has taken advantage of poor fielding against them in conference play, as Big Ten opponents have fielded at a measly .934 percent against the ‘Cats during their 11-5 start. How the Wildcats take advantage misplays by Iowa is something to look out for this weekend.
Or, reason number two Iowa fans should worry about the upcoming series. The Hawkeyes’ offense has struggled all season long, as their hitters have posted a .229 team batting average over 45 games, good for second-worst in the conference, beating out only Penn State (.220). They’ve been even worse in conference play, with a collective average of .218. In addition to poor contact hitting, Iowa sluggers have only logged 14 round-trippers all season, fewest of all Big Ten teams.
Northwestern’s offense has nearly been the exact opposite. Wildcats batters are hitting .297 so far this season, including a .333 average in Big Ten matchups. The ‘Cats have also slugged 44 home runs this season. In addition to the stellar work at the plate, Northwestern has displayed aggression on the basepaths this season with 103 stolen base attempts, 100 of which were successful.
The series marks the last at home this regular season, and as such, Northwestern softball will be celebrating the contributions of their seven seniors. Infielders Brooke Marquez and Marissa Panko; outfielders Sabrina Rabin, Abbey Boyd, Renee Ariola; catcher Sammy Nettling and pitcher Nicole Bond will all play their last regular season game at Sharon J. Drysdale Field on Sunday, noon CT.
Northwestern is hot and wants to further an eight game win streak, while Iowa is cold and hopes to snap its nine game slide. How will a hot Wildcats offense perform against one of the best pitching crews in the conference? Will the Hawkeyes be able to turn their offense around against a team with statistically weaker pitching? Tune in to WNUR Sports on Friday at 4pm CT to hear Matt McHugh and Charlie Heveran on the call for game one.