Northwestern Baseball 2023 Preview: the Foster Era Begins
By Brea Lassek
Northwestern baseball found itself in a familiar position at the end of the 2022 season, finishing 24-27 overall and narrowly missing the eight-team Big Ten Tournament field.
The program hasn’t finished above .500 in more than two decades or reached the conference tournament since 2017. In fact, the ‘Cats have only finished in the Big Ten’s top three 13 times since its first season of baseball in 1898.
But this won’t be the same Northwestern squad you’re used to.
First-year head coach Jim Foster is confident in how his guys can perform in a new system. After all, this is his fourth rebuild attempt– and he’s been pretty successful thus far.
In 2017, Foster’s first season with Army, the Black Knights posted a 25-31 record. The next year, Army went 37-24 and took a game off a ranked NC State team in the Raleigh regional, the fourth regional victory in program history. Army went on to reach the NCAA tournament three more times with Foster at the helm.
Flashback even further to Foster’s nine seasons with the University of Rhode Island where he compiled a 268-230-3 record to become the winningest coach in program history. The season before Foster came on, the Rams finished its 2003 campaign with an even 26-26 mark; he then led URI to six consecutive 30-win seasons, along with taking the Rams to its first NCAA postseason appearance.
Comparing Northwestern to his past rebuilds, Foster said the ‘Cats are “well ahead of schedule,” noting the facilities and the players’ hunger to compete.
The preseason expectations are low with D1Baseball projecting the ‘Cats to finish last in the Big Ten.
“Nothing’s better than nobody expecting you to do anything, and then all of a sudden, you go out there and surprise some people,” Foster said. “These guys aren’t as bad as people think they are…they just need a little direction, a little love.”
The key to transforming a team historically situated at the bottom of the Big Ten? Foster said it all starts with the culture.
“I can’t wait to give these guys more each and every day. I think building the relationship up and getting that belief and trust in each other is more important than the baseball,” Foster said. “But the baseball side of it is really important too, and the more comfortable they get around you, the more questions they ask.”
With a culture shift also comes a new identity.
Foster’s first order of business is the pitching staff, a squad that finished with the third-worst ERA (6.60) in the conference. “Way too many walks and freebies,” Foster remarked. The staff averaged a 1.76 WHIP.
Bringing in 14 years of experience as a minor league catcher, pitching has always been Foster’s specialty. As Boston College’s associate head coach, he helped the pitching staff to a 4.41 and 3.83 team ERA in 2015 and 2016, respectively– a large part of the Eagles’ first super-regional run in program history. In 2022, Army finished with the lowest team ERA in the Patriot League.
“Catchers, you know, you can see the whole field, and you’re always thinking about everybody else,” Foster said. “You’re not thinking about yourself too much. You’re thinking about the pitcher, the defense, you know, everything you do can win and lose the game, so I think that’s why catchers make good coaches.”
Shortly after taking over in July, Foster picked up six transfer pitchers and hired pitching coach Jon Strauss, who spent the last seven seasons at Baylor.
Though last season’s ace Sean Sullivan transferred to Wake Forest, Michael Farinelli returns with the team’s best ERA (4.43) and will slip into the Friday slot. A surprise to the rotation is Loyola-Marymount transfer Matt McClure, who Foster announced as the Saturday starter. The Sunday spot is still in contention, as several guys challenge last year’s starter Grant Comstock, a sophomore right-hander who made eight starts for the ‘Cats.
Foster had high praise for all of the pitchers he grabbed out of the portal, particularly the Lafayette duo of Nolan Morr and Luke Benneche. Both played in the Cape Cod Baseball League this summer; Morr posted a 3.12 ERA and started game one of the playoffs for the Falmouth Commodores while Benneche split 24 innings between Wareham and Harwich. Foster also noted the steady improvement of Ethan Sund, a grad transfer from North Park University.
Coming back from an injury that limited his sophomore campaign, Ben Grable is also expected to make noise from the bullpen, if healthy. In his first season with the ‘Cats in 2021, he posted a 4.08 ERA through 17.2 innings and led the team with 12.56 strikeouts per nine innings pitched. He clocked in at 96.6 during scrimmages, the highest among NU pitchers, generating attention from MLB scouts.
Offensively, the transfer portal took away many of the Wildcats’ offensive weapons: Anthony Calarco (Ole Miss), Ethan O’Donnell (Virginia), Patrick Herrera (Kentucky) and Jay Beshears (Duke). Foster noted Anthony’s younger brother Alex Calarco as an emerging player early on and expects him to be a main contributor in the middle of the lineup after being set back by injury last season.
Two ‘Cats had strong showings at the plate in the NECBL over the summer. Vince Bianchina registered a .309 batting average in 94 plate appearances for the North Adams SteepleCats and added 10 hits in 40 at-bats for the Kalamazoo Growlers in the Northwoods League. UConn transfer Kevin Ferrer batted .354, hitting four home runs.
Stephen Hrustich provides more power to the lineup and will likely hit cleanup. He slashed 11 and 10 home runs, respectively, over the last two seasons with the ‘Cats. Last season brought some struggles for the captain, hitting just above .200. Although a down year from his .270 campaign in 2021, Hrustich brought some late game heroics, most notably going deep to walk-off Penn State and grab the series. He earned a spot on this year’s preseason all-Big Ten honors list with Grable and Calarco.
“He’s just kind of that glue guy in the lineup,” Foster said of Hrustich’s leadership.
Some first-years are also looking to make an impact. Sam Garewal out of Canyon Crest Academy High School provides a strong left-handed presence on the mound, topping out in the low-90s during NU’s scrimmages. In terms of position players, Michael Elko and Owen McElfatrick are impressing early on; with Bianchina and Livermore expected to hold down third and shortstop, respectively, one of these two first-years may fill in the gap left by Herrera at second base.
More changes besides personnel are coming to the Northwestern offense. In 2022, the ‘Cats grabbed 33 total bags as a team. Foster’s goal of 100 more than triples that mark.
“We’re going to bring a new brand of baseball,” Foster said.
Foster’s vision of the offense revolves around small ball, balanced with power from some veteran bats like Hrustich, Ferrer and Calarco. He said his goal is to score seven runs per game but more importantly to cause chaos for opposing pitchers, moving them off the mound and forcing opposing defenses to make plays.
“We’re not just gonna let them sit in that dirt area and pitch. He’s gonna be moving to feel the bunt. Hopefully, we can create some big innings, you know, some crooked numbers,” Foster said. “I’ve never had a team where we just sit back and wait for guys to hit, and I think that’s what Northwestern’s been in the past.”
With so many new faces, this Northwestern team will be almost unrecognizable when they take the field at Texas State on opening day. Rebuilding a program already takes time, especially when most of last years’ stars hit the portal. Improvement this season won’t necessarily come in the form of the Wildcats’ record or where they finish in the Big Ten. The true measure of Foster’s first year will be marked by his ability to address past areas of concern, specifically within the pitching staff.
Even though most of the focus surrounding his hire has been on the bigger picture, Foster is just ready to see what this group can do come Friday.
“They’re gonna look back years from now and go, ‘That’s when we got it going.’”