Northwestern Baseball Season Recap

By Leo Tesler

The 2023 Northwestern baseball season will be looked back upon for many reasons, very few of them good ones. For one, the ‘Cats’ 10-40 record was their worst since 1985, and they managed to win only one Big Ten series. In addition, 2023 ended up being the first and only season overseen by head coach Jim Foster, who was let go of after various controversies were unearthed following the conclusion of the season.

The Wildcats’ season began on a sunny February day far away from Evanston, with a non-conference series against Texas State in San Marcos, Texas. The ‘Cats kicked off a twelve-game losing streak that weekend, allowing an absurd 56 runs over the three-game beatdown.

That losing streak more or less defined the entire season, and sucked just about any hope out of Northwestern making any headway once conference play began. During that dreadful stretch that spanned just over a month, the ‘Cats were outscored 150 to 56 by their opponents, and were in the basement of the Big Ten in almost every measurable statistic. ‘Cats fans eagerly awaited the first win of the season.

On March 19, the ‘Cats began an irregular Sunday to Monday two-game series against Butler in Indianapolis. The Sunday game seemed like any other Northwestern baseball game when Butler scored in the 2nd inning, but ‘Cats outfielder Kevin Ferrer had other plans.

Ferrer hit a solo homer in the bottom of the inning to tie the game at one apiece, then came through again in the 8th, reaching on an error that scored a run to give the ‘Cats a lead that would not relinquish. They took down Butler for their first win, 5 to 1.

Unfortunately, that high was short-lived. The Wildcats dropped their next six games leading up to their home opener; a mish-mosh of non-conference matchups against non-descript teams like TCU, UT-Arlington, and Houston.

But the ‘Cats used opening day at Rocky and Berenice Miller Park to try to send a new message. They battered Northern Illinois for seven runs in the 2nd inning in this late March slugfest, and ultimately sent the fans home happy with a 15-11 victory.

They carried that revitalized energy into conference play. Northwestern lost two out of three at Purdue, but came home and took care of business against rival Illinois, winning two out of three games. The ‘Cats also feasted on non-conference competition, taking four of six games against UIC, Northern Illinois, Milwaukee, and Notre Dame.

But that positive momentum soon came to a screeching halt. The ‘Cats lost their next 16 games against Big Ten opponents, getting swept five times before scratching out a 6-4 win against Iowa on May 19. Their last-place 4-20 conference record was 3.5 games behind the next worst team, and put them 13 games behind Big Ten-leading Maryland.

A season that was supposed to be the dawn of a new era under Coach Foster, who led Army West Point to four conference titles during his head coaching tenure, ultimately went wrong in just about every possible way.

The program was torn apart by the sudden resignations of Jon Strauss, Chris Beacom, and Dusty Napoleon in early March. Many of the young players who were supposed to step into roles vacated by the transfers of Anthony Calarco, Jay Beshears, Patrick Herrera, Ethan O’Donnell, and Sean Sullivan experienced growing pains. And the competition the ‘Cats faced within the conference was relentless.

Offensively, the ‘Cats finished dead last in all three triple slash categories, with their .246 batting average, .342 on-base percentage, and .378 slugging percentage. In terms of OPS+, which takes OPS and sets it on an ascending scale where 100 is league average, the team as a whole was approximately 44 percent worse than a league average hitter.

On the pitching side, the numbers look even worse. Their 8.53 team ERA was the worst in the league by more than two full runs. Opposing hitters hit a scorching .314 against them. For reference, Maryland, the team with the highest batting average in the conference, hit .309.

However, there were a few Northwestern players who showed improvement as the season wore on.

Sophomore slugger Alex Calarco got a full season of starting opportunities, slashing .287/.363/.455 while hitting four homers. Switch-hitting catchers are hard to come by, and those who show strength from both sides of the plate are valuable to any team.

On the mound, both David Utagawa and Sam Garewal showed improvements. Utagawa struck out four times as many batters as he walked, which was the best ratio on the team. Garewal, a freshman, struck out 21.6% of the batters he faced, which was the best out of NU pitchers who threw at least 40 innings. Garewal’s ERA of 5.69 was also just below the league average, a step ahead of most of his teammates.

Players, coaches, and fans alike probably want to put this 2023 season in the rearview mirror. It may be hard to do that with the 2024 roster still shrouded in uncertainty. But with some combination of cohesive coaching, expanded opportunities, and a tiny miracle or two, the ‘Cats can make the 2023 season a forgettable one pretty quickly.