By Andre Toran
After a disappointing 17-32 finish in 2018, the Northwestern University Wildcats expect to win the day in 2019 with confidence and consistency.
Now, less than a month away from their first slate of games in Mesa, Arizona, vs. Brigham Young University, the NU baseball team believes that a combination of experience, youth development, and a strong off season could spark a change of narrative and culture in 2019 and moving forward.
“Probably the most over used phrase in sports right now is ‘The Process’,” Allen said. “But really, it’s just about our daily actions, our daily decisions that we’re making that’s going to put us in a position to have some consistency. When you’re talking about 56 games you need consistency and I think that’s what proved in 2017 — that when you just play the game and stay consistent you can make runs like that.”
Allen’s reference to the 2017 club ties directly into the team’s expectations entering 2019: qualify for the Big Ten tournament en route to a NCAA tournament bid.
Though 2018 was an off year, the club flashed down the stretch in 2017, making a run to the Big Ten Tournament final, after a 6-18 start, and falling one game shy of a NCAA berth.
This year, Allen expects the Wildcats to find a similar groove, but from the start season – a level of consistent play that’ll hopefully warrant the team’s first NCAA tournament appearance since 1957.
The Wildcats have 20 returning players from 2018, which gives this team a well of depth and experience that should help NU play more consistently on a regular basis. Of the 20, seven are either returning starters or heavily contributed a season ago – including a starting pitching staff that is completely intact from the year prior.
“I really want to see these guys playing at a consistent level from the jump,” Allen said. “And, I think that at times we either haven’t started out great or we’ll have a good weekend and then it’s just really up and down. To me, this team, they have the experience… which will give us an opportunity to put a record together that’s going to warrant us playing in the NCAA tournament.”
The anticipation of consistency and the level of experience the club brings back is expected to translate into wins according to Allen and will have a positive impact on the growth and development of a strong freshman class.
Northwestern is confident that 2019 will be the start of something new: a change of culture, a change of outcome, and the establishment of a household name.
“I want the culture to change,” said Jack Dunn, senior infielder and team leader. “The culture is slowly changing, and I want to see that take another step forward. I want to build a foundation, because I don’t think Northwestern baseball has that… so I want to create a foundation and hopefully a tradition for the young guys moving forward.”
Here’s a deeper look into 2019 Northwestern baseball.
When talking about the strengths of this Northwestern team, their depth of experience has already been mentioned. However, without a doubt, this is the Wildcats’ greatest strength, because it is connected to so many areas where the team performs well.
Among these, you can expect this team to defend, and at a high level – especially up the middle of the field. The experience throughout the diamond, should give the NU pitching staff greater confidence in the defense being played behind them, a comfort all pitchers hope to have.
In mention of the pitching staff, Allen raved about the “number of options” he has.
“I do feel like we are going to be able to go into a weekend and not have to concede,” Allen said. “We are going to be able to run out guys that are going to be able to challenge other teams’ lineups.”
Allen and his coaching staff have yet to designate a No. 1 starter, as they are blessed with the challenge of too many options.
However, the likes of junior Hank Christie (RHP), the sophomore left-handed duo of Jack Pagliarini and Quinn Lavelle, and freshman newcomer Michael Doherty (RHP) are expected to be in the mix — all of who are expected to make up the Wildcats starting rotation.
Though the strength of the team is expected to be their ability to defend at a high level, Allen made it clear that his club has the potential to burst on the offensive end as well. This is where the Wildcats experience comes into play regarding some of the things they could excel in, in 2019.
Offensively, this team has seen a great number of college at-bats prior to the 2019 campaign, which could translate into an increased level of production. According to Allen, the team has about six players that have seen 200-plus college at-bats. This speaks comfort and savvy in the batter’s box, which could become an advantage for the ‘Cats down the road.
Players to Watch
Jack Dunn, SR INF 2018 slash: .314/.399/.381
A 2018 All-Big Ten honoree, the senior shortstop is expected to have an even bigger year than 2018 where he led the team in batting average, stolen bases (21), and on base percentage (OBP). Dunn is a senior leader on this team whose work ethic and grit has had a big-time impact on the culture of the club, according to Allen. Expect Dunn to have another big year and become a repeat All-Big Ten team member.
Alex Erro, JR INF 2018 slash: .296/.376/.393
As Dunn’s running mate up the middle of the diamond, Erro started every game at second a year ago and has been a solid contributor to the NU lineup since his freshman year. According to the coaching staff, Erro has a lot of good baseball ahead of him and his game really grew over the summer and through the fall.
Willie Bourbon, SR INF 2018 slash: .275/.384/.455
Bourbon started every game at first base a year ago and has the potential to put up serious power numbers in 2019. A season ago, Bourbon finished second on the team in every major power category (6 HR, 34 RBI, .455 SLG).
Hank Christie, JR RHP 2018 stats: 3-5, 4.61 ERA, 37 SO
According to Allen, Christie seems “motivated” coming into 2019 and Allen is hopeful Christie will return to an elite form. Christie was an All-freshman honoree in the Big Ten in 2017, but in 2018 Christie failed to build upon his freshman statically speaking. However, expect Christie to have a clear plan when he takes the mound each day in 2019, which Allen hopes will translate to a heightened level of execution and success.
For more player stats and biographical info:
David Dunn, R-FR INF/OF
Brother of shortstop Jack, David Dunn is expected to start in centerfield for the Wildcats this season. Dunn played 10 games a year ago but missed the rest of the season due to injury. However, early success prior to the injury a year ago has the Northwestern coaching staff excited to see what he will contribute this year at 100 percent.
Sam Lawrence (LHP) and Nick Paciorek (RHP)
Allen said he expects a lot out of this pitching duo coming out of the pen. Lawrence’s freshman year really impressed the Northwestern staff, as the lefty posted a 2.85 ERA and a 5-3 record in 23 appearances, but a sophomore slump a year ago leaves room for redemption. As for Paciorek, he is a converted catcher that Allen hopes to deepen his options coming out of the bullpen. Expect these two to stabilize the NU bullpen and to be used heavily in “high leverage” situations.
Newcomers: Fresh and Physical
Northwestern is ecstatic about this year’s freshman class. Described as “physical” and adding an aspect of athleticism to this year’s team that hasn’t been seen in a while, here are a few newcomers to keep your eye on:
Michael Doherty (RHP) — 6’2, 205
Described by Allen as the “prototypical…big bodied” starting pitching, Doherty – as mentioned previously – is expected to see some time in the starting rotation this year after impressing the staff in the fall with a beyond his years type of composure.
Michael Trautwein (Catcher) – 6’1, 185
Trautwein is a left-handed hitting catcher who the staff expects to display to some elevated power numbers as his career and development grows. Allen is high on Trautwein’s leadership ability at a young age and expects him to develop into a “really special player.”
Anthony Calarco (1B) – 6’3, 215
Calarco is another newcomer that Allen and staff expect to hit for great power. This is a piece their team was missing in 2018; “the ability to score quickly,” Allen said
Jack Anderson (C/1B) – 6’3, 200
Described by Allen as another “big bodied” physical specimen, Anderson flashed bright spots in the fall, and rounds out this talented group of guys.
Finishing second to last in the conference a season ago, doesn’t bode well for Northwestern’s projected preseason ranking going into 2019. “My guess is they probably pick us on the back-half,” said Allen, but wherever they fall won’t make a dent in the confidence of this program.
The Wildcats believe change is due and soon to come. They believe they will be a top 8 team in the Big Ten and that an NCAA tournament bid is possible. They understand that signature wins and victories on the road are necessary to boost their RPI and liken their chances at a berth. Northwestern believes in now.
“There needs to be a belief in the dugout,” Allen stressed. “It’s like the chicken or the egg. What comes first? The confidence or the wins? But we feel that confidence is a choice and we really believe we can go out and do some big things.”