By Eric Rynston-Lobel
If before the first pitch of Northwestern Baseball’s season opener against Brigham Young, someone told you this team would be playing for a berth in the Big Ten tournament on the last game of the season, you might have scoffed at that remark.
The program was coming off of a sub-par 2018 campaign to say the least after embarking on a magical run the previous year en route to a Big Ten Championship game appearance.
While the expectations entering the season were justifiably on the less optimistic side, the Cats’ performance this year provides reason for much optimism in 2020 and beyond. Having just been eliminated from playing in the Big Ten Tournament following their 6-5 heartbreaking loss to Minnesota, it’s easy to rue the opportunities that were instead of looking at all of the positives this year provided. My goal is to do the latter, and I hope you’ll enjoy the ride.
After dropping its opening series two out of three to BYU, Northwestern squared off with Cal for one game in Arizona. The Golden Bears came to Evanston back in 2016, outscoring the ‘Cats 59-5 in a four-game series, so there was some apprehension that NU might be in for a repeat. But this team was undeterred by that history, as they defeated Cal 9-5 thanks in part to a big day at the plate from senior Willie Bourbon who hit his first home run of the season.
After winning two and losing two on the road in Arizona, Northwestern’s next stop was in Durham, North Carolina to take on the Duke Blue Devils who reached the Super Regionals of the NCAA tournament in 2018. Despite getting swept in a doubleheader including an unsightly 23-8 massacre, the ‘Cats displayed their resiliency salvaging the final game of the series with a 5-3 win thanks to a strong performance by sophomore southpaw Quinn Lavelle (6 IP, 1 ER, 3 Ks). After that game, junior Hank Christie, who struck out 10 Blue Devils’ hitters in the first game of the series, told me: “we’re a better team in my opinion…we kind of crushed them statistically.”
With the hot takes issued, Northwestern was set to show that they were a team to be reckoned with. Unfortunately, its next two road trips produced a 1-5 record against Georgia Tech and Missouri, putting the ‘Cats at an unappealing 4-9 overall.
Headed on the road for the fifth (!!) consecutive week, a seven-and-a-half-hour bus ride to Kent, Ohio, the ‘Cats struggles continued. They were swept in a doubleheader and were outscored 23-6 in the two games. Following those defeats, it seemed the season had hit rock bottom. At 5-11, NU seemed destined to have a repeat performance of 2018. This was only further validated after dropping two of three to Purdue. But then, against San Jose State, something changed.
Game one of that series was punctuated by a complete-game shutout by Lavelle, who aside from a disastrous start against Kent State, was putting together an incredible start to his second year in Evanston. Game two came to an end following a walk-off walk by Bourbon, and the ‘Cats brought out the brooms for the first time in 2019 following a comprehensive 6-0 win. The good news following this series was obvious: Northwestern was a much more respectable 10-13. The bad news: Hank Christie wouldn’t pitch again this year following his Saturday start due to injury.
After two non-conference games against Chicago State and UIC, the ‘Cats headed to Columbus, Ohio looking to fare much better in the Buckeye State than they did during their trip to Kent. Lavelle started the first game and although he allowed five runs, turned in a gusty seven-inning performance. The bats woke up in the final three innings and NU won 13-6. The next day, the ‘Cats clinched the series with a 7-2 win, and on Sunday, they brought out the brooms for the second consecutive weekend. The 10-4 win, which featured a 4 for 6 performance at the plate from junior Alex Erro, put the ‘Cats back at .500 and had everyone believing that this team was far better than the one that started out the year 5-11.
The next Big Ten series was back at Rocky and Berenice Miller Park against Maryland. Northwestern dropped two of the three games despite scoring 31 runs. The problem, of course, was that they allowed 32. In a series where a second win could’ve been the deciding factor in the implications of the final standings, this one certainly hurt.
The series against Maryland marked the beginning of another mini tailspin for the ‘Cats. After the Terrapins left town, NU lost a midweek contest against Notre Dame in South Bend, and then was swept by Michigan in Ann Arbor. Now 16-20 overall and 5-7 in the Big Ten, the next series against a poor Michigan State team became a virtual must-win. But Northwestern continued to struggle in the state of Michigan, as they dropped the first two games to the Spartans.
The third game of the series was when this team once again showed its resiliency. After MSU outscored the ‘Cats 16-5 in the first two games, the visitors in purple broke through in the final game with a 10-inning 3-2 victory. The fact that this came in the second game of a doubleheader only underscored their grittiness of the performance.
While that win definitely helped save the season, there was still much work to be done. There was also once again some doubt as to if this team was truly good enough to make the Big Ten Tournament.
That question was partially answered the following week when Northwestern took two out of three from the Nebraska Cornhuskers, who entered the series as the second-best team in the conference. The middle game of the series was the most impressive when the ‘Cats put up a 10 spot. Senior Jack Dunn was 4 for 5 with three runs batted in, and fellow-senior Ben Dickey was 3 for 3 with his third career home run.
After the Cornhuskers escaped rainy Evanston, NU stood at 21-23 overall with a three-game set against Rutgers coming up – another virtual must-win series.
And once again, the ‘Cats came through. Although at this point, Northwestern was without ace Quinn Lavelle, who wound up missing the remainder of the season following the Michigan State series. That put a team with only two real proven starters without any proven arms to start games. But in hindsight, maybe this wasn’t the worst thing in the world. Sophomore Ryan Bader, coming off of a seven-inning masterpiece against the Cornhuskers, followed that up with another strong outing against the Scarlet Knights, pitching his team to a 5-3 series-opening win. Following Bader, first-year Mike Doherty turned in his best performance to date, twirling eight brilliant shutout innings, leading the ‘Cats to a 4-0 win and a series clinch. Despite dropping the final game, Northwestern sat at 10-11 in the conference and 23-24 overall. A series win at home against Minnesota the following weekend almost assured that this team would be playing in Omaha.
That proved to be easier said than done. Another top-tier Big Ten team, the Golden Gophers jumped out to an early 5-0 lead in the first game of the series. Ryan Bader’s magical run appeared to be a thing of the past. But after a rough first inning, the lefty settled down and allowed his offense to claw back. Unfortunately though, they would only get as close as 5-4 before the final pitch was delivered. That made game two another must-win game, something this team was certainly no stranger to.
With Mike Doherty coming off of his eight-inning performance, Head Coach Spencer Allen needed a repeat from his rookie right-hander. Though he wasn’t as sharp to start off, Doherty’s offense came through big time including a seven-run fifth inning, propelling the ‘Cats to a 10-3 win. Now, it would all come down to the final game.
Entering Saturday, Northwestern was rooting for wins by Iowa over Maryland and Purdue over Ohio State to prevent the ‘Cats from being eliminated with a loss. Leading Minnesota 3-2 in the top of the fourth, first-year Jack Pagliarini served up a two-run home run to the Gophers’ Jordan Kozicky. Almost instantly after Kozicky touched home, the umpires called for a delay due to a lighting strike. After a three-hour rain hiatus, Maryland and Ohio State had both defeated their opponents. This meant a Northwestern loss ended its season.
Both teams emerged from the rain delay poised to outscore the other. After Minnesota took a 4-3 lead into the fifth, it tacked on another run to expand its lead to two. The ‘Cats responded with a run of their own in the bottom half of the inning making it 5-4. However, the boxing match continued as the Gophers scored again in the top of the sixth only to have Northwestern counter again with an RBI double from first-year Michael Trautwein. Then, the avalanche suddenly stopped.
In the bottom of the seventh, Bourbon led off against Jeff Fasching. The senior first baseman hit a slow ground ball to the second baseman Zack Raabe. Despite video evidence showing Bourbon’s foot hitting the bag before the ball reached the base, Bourbon was called out. Of course, the umpire is by no means the reason the ‘Cats ended up coming up short 6-5. But it seemed like the air was taken out of the Northwestern players and crowd following that play.
The ‘Cats didn’t go down without a fight though. Down to their final strike in the bottom of the ninth trailing by one, first-year Shawn Goosenberg lined a single into center field. That brought up Bourbon again, who ended his Northwestern baseball career with a swinging strikeout to end the game and the season.
You might be thinking to yourself “Wow! A single and a strikeout. That doesn’t show much fight.” But if you watched this team from start to finish this year, you know that there was never a point when this team stopped battling. Whether they were down by ten runs or up by seven, the hitters continued to put runners on base, and the pitchers continued to grind through at bats. This is one of the most impressive teams I’ve seen that’s finished below .500, and while that might not win Spencer Allen and his team much, there’s still plenty of reasons to be feeling confident about this program heading into 2020 and beyond. Northwestern football has gone from disaster to the Big Ten Championship game. Men’s basketball made an NCAA Tournament appearance for the first time in school history. Women’s basketball reached the WNIT championship game. Why not baseball? The pieces are certainly there for a magical run. They’ll just have to wait a little bit longer.
Most Valuable Player: Jack Dunn (.340 AVG, 36 RBI, 43 runs scored, 11 SB)
Team Cy Young: Nick Paciorek (3-2, 3.37 ERA, 44 Ks in 26.2 IP)
Comeback Player of the Year: Jack Kelly (.296 AVG – hit .131 last year)
Co-“First-Years” of the Year: Shawn Goosenberg & Michael Trautwein (Goosenberg hit .288 with 27 RBI, 23 runs scored and 12 SB; Trautwein hit .243 and was the most difficult catcher to steal on among any catcher in the Power Five conferences)
Most Underappreciated Player: Casey O’Laughlin (lead the team with five home runs while hitting .260 and displayed a cannon in left field)