By Andre Toran
With a full count, a runner on third and two outs in the bottom of the fifth inning, Northwestern University pitcher Hank Christie came to balance, glanced over at the Duke runner and began his delivery to the plate.
Spinning off his right hand, Christie’s breaking ball swept across the strike zone, diving toward the left-handed batter at the plate, and induced a lamentable swing-and-miss from Duke second baseman Tyler Wardwell .
That was supposed to the dagger. The knee-buckling curve Christie threw helped him to strikeout the side and preserve the 3-1 Northwestern lead going into the sixth.
Instead, Northwestern (3-4) went on to fall to No. 20 Duke 5-4 in extra innings Saturday night, after blowing the lead in the eighth inning for a second straight week. This is the second consecutive time Christie watched a win slip away from his column, his efforts returned with the sting of a no decision.
Yet every pitch Christie threw Saturday in Durham hit the glove with purpose. And, despite another no decision, Christie is sticking true to a promise he made to himself in the off-season: “taking more of a leadership position, focusing on the little things every day, and overall being more than just a pitcher on the staff.”
A year ago, Christie began the 2018 campaign as the ace of Northwestern’s pitching staff, coming off a successful freshman season that netted him All-Big Ten Freshman Team honors. After assuming the role of the ace for the first three weekends of the 2018 season, complacency kicked in and Christie was removed.
Christie accredits this breakdown in performance to a lack of maturity, but says he was humbled by the experience; it was necessary.
“Being in that role, I was very excited, but at the time I was a hot-headed sophomore,” said Christie, the Oak Park native . “I didn’t really remember what put me in that position and the work that I needed to do. So, I was a little over-confident.”
“That’s just the nature of the game. Things even out — reversion to the mean, I would say. So, if you’re not really working hard and paying attention to the little things, they can spiral out of control.”
With every pitch he’s thrown thus far, Christie is out to prove he’s matured and can be a consistently dominant force in the Big Ten and beyond.
Want evidence? Look no further than Saturday night.
Christie went pitch for pitch with Duke’s Graeme Stinson — the No. 1 ranked pitching prospect in the country, according to D1Baseball – with his only blemish being a second inning solo shot off the bat of Duke catcher Rudy Maxwell. Aside from that, Christie pitched six strong innings of three-hit baseball, striking out 10 and not allowing a single walk.
It’s simple for Christie. He said he felt he has something to prove. And walking the fine line between confidence and arrogance is a part of that larger narrative; it’s a controlled credence in one’s ability.
“I take it personally that this guy I’m throwing against gets all the hype,” Christie said about facing Stinson. “I know the name, I’m not ignorant about it. I know he’s the No. 1 pitching prospect in the nation. But I feel like there’s nobody I can’t beat when I’m throwing my best stuff. And that’s how I have to feel when I’m on the mound.”
Stinson ended the duel early on a pitch-count restriction, exiting after four commanding innings of pitching that produced seven K’s and no earned runs. His departure placed the spotlight solely on Christie’s efforts and eventually gave Northwestern an opportunity to put a dent in the scoreboard.
An offensive explosion by the Wildcats at the top of the fifth seemed to suck the air out of the undefeated Blue Devil’s and gave NU a 3-1 lead after trailing 1-0. Christie was in position to earn his first win of the year, and a strong statement in the fifth and sixth offered the beginnings of that reality.
After giving up double to begin the bottom of the fifth, Christie settled down and struck out the side. He walked off the mound flexing, pumping his fist and embraced teammates at the edge of the dugout with hi-fives.
However, Christie’s strong effort returned void.
As he did a week earlier, Christie put up an identical line versus Brigham Young University — six innings pitched, three hits, one earned run. And the results were just as similar: Christie doesn’t return to the mound in the seventh, the Northwestern bullpen gives up the lead in the eighth, the Wildcats lose in extra innings and Christie goes home with the no decision.
“This is a team game and he (Christie) understands that,” said Head Coach Spencer Allen, in reference to the team’s bullpen breakdowns. “We’re still trying to figure out exactly how to handle late game situations.”
With any measure of luck or support from the NU bullpen, Christie could easily be 2-0. But as A. Bartlett Giamatti — the seventh Commissioner of Major League Baseball — once put it: “[Baseball] breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart.”
Though there’s a zero in his win column, Christie’s growth is evident, and his efforts have been dominant. In two starts this year, Christie has posted 1.50 ERA, struck out 14, and has only walked 1 batter in 12 innings pitched.
If Christie can sustain this level of production, the wins will come, and Big Ten honors will be in sight once again.
“He just keeps coming after hitters,” Allen said. “There’s going to be days where guys get him, but he did a really good job against a good Duke team…I’m really proud of how Hank keeps attacking.”
He added, “Hank will get his wins as long as he keeps pitching as he is.”
Though his physical efforts have come back void in the statistical sense of wins and losses, Christie has shown improvement and growth in attitude and mentality – its seen, it’s noticed, and Christie is right where he wants to be.