NU baseball returns for full slate

By Andrew Polk

Even though snow still blankets the artificial turf at Rocky and Berenice Miller Park, it’s officially baseball season in Evanston.

Northwestern’s baseball team opens its season with a four-game series starting Friday in Birmingham, Alabama against UAB.

As a new season dawns, things will be a bit different for Northwestern than in recent years.

After playing only 49 games combined over the last two pandemic-shortened seasons, Northwestern is set to return to a typical 55-game schedule this spring, highlighted by 24 home games.

            The Wildcats will be led by Josh Reynolds, who was promoted from assistant coach to interim head coach after Spencer Allen stepped down last May. He takes the reigns of a program that finished 15-21 last season.

            Twelve newcomers join the team this season, replacing three players drafted by MLB teams and nine graduates. Reynolds expects the team’s three graduate transfers to have an immediate impact in their first year as Wildcats.

“I think all three grad transfers are going to help us out,” Reynolds said. “When you get a guy that has experience, you can plug that in. You don’t always have to rely on a first-year to come in and do it.”

Graduate transfers J.C. Santini and Ruben Fontes will look to contribute to an offensive lineup that led the Big Ten Conference in slugging percentage and home runs per game in 2021. With the Wildcats losing key power hitters in Shawn Goosenberg and Michael Trautwein to the MLB draft, Reynolds hopes the offense can be multifaceted in 2022.

“Obviously the home run is still a big part of it,” Reynolds said of his offense. “Everyone will take a three-run home run in an inning. But when that’s not how we’re going to score that day, can we be dynamic and steal a base, hit-and-run, execute the game that way, drive balls into the gap, stay flat and get the ball out of the air.”

Senior Anthony Calarco, a first-team all-Big Ten Conference selection last season, said he thinks the offense can take a step forward this year even after a stellar 2021 season.

“I think top to bottom our lineup can be more dynamic than it was last year,” Calarco said. “Overall, I think we have a good chance to repeat our success, if not score more runs. We’ve worked really hard on becoming a complete offense — stealing bases, getting bunts down, as well as knowing who we are, and we are a team that can still hit the long ball.”

On the mound, Northwestern will be led by senior right-hander Mike Doherty, who led the team in innings pitched and earned run average last season. The ‘Cats had the lowest strikeout total of all Big Ten teams in 2021, but Doherty said the pitching staff can be successful without relying on the punch-out.

“Something that we should be able to do and that we need to be able to do well in order to be good are throwing strikes, challenging hitters and not giving away any free bases,” Doherty said. “Trying to pitch to weak contact is something that our staff can do well, and if we’re able to do that, we’ll have success.”

If Northwestern wants to get off to a solid start this year, they will have to do so away from Evanston. The Wildcats begin the season with three consecutive weekend road trips, playing four-game series at UAB, Santa Clara and Cincinnati before hosting the University of St. Thomas on Mar. 11. Junior pitcher Jack Dyke said the team looks forward to escaping the Midwest and bonding with each other on the road trips.

“You leave the freezing cold weather, and you go to the 75 and sunny, it’s unbelievable, it’s so nice.” Dyke said. “You’re playing the sport that you love with the guys that you love, and a lot of memories are made.”

After finishing 10th out of 13 in the Big Ten Conference a season ago, Northwestern has its sights set on a top-eight finish in 2022, which would qualify the team for the Big Ten Conference Baseball Tournament. The Wildcats last made the conference tournament in 2017, advancing to the championship but falling one game short of the program’s first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1957. Even with 65 years of history going against them, the goal remains the same for Calarco and his teammates.

“Our goal this year, like every year, is to make the NCAA Tournament, and we’re going to be as competitive as we possibly can be in the Big Ten,” Calarco said. “We’re going to do everything we can to make it to a regional and get this program over the hump.”