Night of the Ace: Who will step up as Northwestern’s Friday night starter?

NU v Michigan 4.7.18

By Andre Toran
Medill Reports

That pitcher who runs out onto the mound on Friday nights is the pacesetter for the rest of the weekend in college baseball.

The first game of a weekend set is crucial to how teams tends to perform, so programs put their best guy on the mound to give them the best shot at winning Game One.

The Friday night Ace – the No. 1 starter in the rotation — isn’t afraid of the lights, the big stage, or the moment. The starter refuses to be intimidated by opposing lineups and boasts a confidence and mental fortitude that will get him out of jams. He is the leader and anchor of the starting rotation Northwestern pitching coach Josh Reynolds said.

“Your team feels that when he touches the mound, we have a chance to win this game,” said Reynolds and Northwestern has to figure out who that guy is for them in 2019.

Expect Northwestern’s decision to come sooner rather than later.

The Wildcats will take on Brigham Young University at 7 p.m. Friday in Mesa, Arizona, and someone must take the mound.

As the first pitch of the year moves closer, the Northwestern University coaching staff has its options trimmed to three: Hank Christie, Jack Pagliarini and Quinn Lavelle, all returners with a solid amount of innings under their belt.

Despite the bevy of arms, they have confidence in throughout their pitching staff, Christie, Pagliarini and Lavelle will be the locks in their starting rotation. Still, the Wildcats must decide whom they are going to hand the ball on Friday nights.

Northwestern pitching coach Josh Reynolds prepares for game time in the dugout vs. Nebraska on February 17. (Carolyn Katz/Carolyn Katz Photography).

“Obviously, what you would like to have is three Friday-type guys on the weekend, right?” said Reynolds, his voice full of promise. “You want to be able to create that depth, as we all know everything starts on the mound in baseball. If you can build that depth and create that depth with your starting rotation that sets you off on a good note.”

“You’re talking about Christie, Lavelle, Pagliarini. They’re all three different, but all three give you that same belief – that this guy could do it. Now, they just have to go out there and execute different things.”

The differences in what each pitcher does well is a part of the dilemma. Here’s a tale of the tape for the three, based on team staff and clubhouse reviews.

Hank Chrsitie v. Nebraska 2.17
Hank Christie sets up to throw a pitch against the University of Nebraska in February. (Carolyn Katz, Carolyn Katz Photography)

Christie: The oldest of the trio, Christie, a junior, has the most experience of the three. The righty sports the classic three-pitch mix (fastball, changeup, curve), however it’s his confidence that can really elevate his game to the next level when he’s on.

“He’s very competitive, and he’s not intimidated by anybody,”                  Reynolds said. “He thinks he’s the best. That’s his main                                motivation; his strength.”

Lavelle v UT 3.2.18
Northwestern left-handed pitcher Quinn Lavelle throws warmup pitches between innings vs. the University of Texas on March 2. (Carolyn Katz/Carolyn Katz Photography).

Lavelle: The lefty sophomore may have the best feel on the mound, Reynolds said. Lavelle is described by his teammates as a crafty lefty that always finds himself in the right position on the mound and has a level of composure that makes him tough to fluster.

“He is the coolest dude on the mound. He’s never psyched out,” Christie said. “That’s something I pride myself in, but that’s something I look at Quinn for; every situation he’s so smooth, so     calm.”

jack pagliarini 3.17.18
Northwestern left-handed pitcher Jack Pagliarini winds up to throw in a game against Central Michigan University last March. (Carolyn Katz/Carolyn Katz Photography).

Pagliarini: Out of the three, Pagliarini may have the best “stuff”            on the team according to head  coach Spencer Allen.                                    Pagliarini’s repertoire features a breaking ball that gives opposing  batters a  tough time, and consequently drives up Pagliarini’s                  strikeout rate compared to Christie and Lavelle that pitch more            to contact to generate outs.

“I wish I had that curve ball,” said Lavelle with a fervor. “That’s                 just a dirty, nasty pitch.”

The skillset each pitcher boasts has some of the qualities a coach looks for when tabbing the ace of a college pitching staff. Between the three of them, there’s grit, confidence, composure, and intensity.

The decision for the Northwestern coaching staff will by no means be easy.

Additionally, it’s not the coaching staff alone that’s aware of each pitchers’ ability, the importance of the Friday night starter, and what each pitcher needs to do to assume the role of staff ace. Rather, the eyes of all three have been on one another.

“I don’t know if they do, but I am certainly checking up on a couple of their numbers when they throw to see how they are doing,” said Christie with a sly grin, mentioning that he felt a sense of competition growing in the summer as the strides Lavelle and Pagliarini made in the weight room and beyond catalyzed his desire to work harder.

christie opening day v. Nebraska 2.17
Northwestern righty Hank Christie throws a pitch on opening day last February against the Nebraska Cornhuskers (Carolyn Katz/Carolyn Katz Photography).

But Christie wanted to make it clear that whatever competition existed between the trio was friendly, and if anything, was helpful to the development of all three.

“We are competitive in everything we do; it’s always respectful,” Christie urged. “I’ve seen personally how toxic things can get when it’s disrespectful and your doing nasty things to get the leg up, and that’s not worth it.”

As Pagliarini put it, “It’s not necessarily a verbal competition, but you know.” This unwritten, unspoken sense of competition is felt everyday according to the three vying for the job, and Pagliarini insisted the atmosphere is “breeding the best performance we can get.”

The atmosphere is wringing the competitive juices out of the entire Northwestern pitching staff, as pitchers must bring their best stuff every day. They have no space to be off their game, and this approach will hopefully bring the best out of every pitcher.

“You want them to do well,” Pagliarini said. “And you want them to do well because that means you’re going to have to be better.”

Ultimately, for the Wildcats coaching staff, the process of deciding whom they will run out there on Friday night will come down to several things:

  • How each pitcher handles the “running game,” and manages the runners on base and the pressure that runners can apply to the Wildcats defense.
  • Can the person handle the Friday night atmosphere? Or does one of the three have a better feel for pitching the Saturday or Sunday game to follow, which carries less pressure?
  • Who gives NU the best chance at winning on Friday night? The numbers each pitcher produces throughout the year will come into play as the season moves forward.

Regardless of who that might be, the Northwestern coaching staff is confident that either one of trio can go out and set the tone, not only for the first weekend of the season, but for the year.

“Whatever happens in the end, I think everyone’s going to be happy as long as the team does well,” Lavelle said. “Obviously, everyone wants to be the ‘Friday night guy’… but it’s definitely competing and knowing that you want to make the guys around you better.”

Photo at top: A Northwestern baseball cap and glove stand proud in the dugout before the April 7 game against the University of Michigan. (Carolyn Katz/Carolyn Katz Photography)