Northwestern at the plate in conference play. The team will need stronger batting performances across the board to make a postseason run. Photos by Joanne Haner / North by Northwestern

With spring comes renewal. The plants regrow, spring cleaning makes a house look refreshed and with the arrival of spring, the Northwestern baseball team (20-20, 7-8 B1G) also found new life.

After a 16-5 loss to Cincinnati on March 5, the season was at danger of spiraling out of control. Their record was a paltry 2-10, and there wasn’t much reason to believe in interim head coach Josh Reynolds.

Then the Wildcats came home.

Starting with two series sweeps against Saint Thomas and Evansville, Rocky and Berenice Miller Park seemed to provide the spark the team needed. That spark then traveled to Carbondale, where the ’Cats would go 3-1 in matchups with SIU and Butler.

Powered by a seven-game winning streak, the team had found its footing just in time for the conference schedule to start, where the success continued. The Wildcats are 3-2 in B1G series, with wins over Indiana, Penn State and Michigan State, having picked up four out-of-conference wins along the way. Northwestern now sports a palatable record compared to the beginning of the season. But behind that record lies crucial factors for fans to watch as Northwestern looks to make this particular spring successful.

Crucial ’Cats

A few Wildcats have been the backbone of the drastic turnaround and will need to produce as the squad gets into the thick of B1G play.

Ethan O’Donnell

Coming off of a promising first season in 2021, the second-year center-fielder has fully emerged as one of the best hitters Northwestern has to offer.

O’Donnell has been an extra-base-hit machine, with a total of 19 doubles that lead not just all Wildcats but the entire B1G. As if that wasn’t enough, he’s tied for first on the team in home runs, providing plenty of pop at the top of the lineup. He’s also been an all-around threat at the plate for the ’Cats, as his .998 on-base plus slugging is good for second at NU and is among the 20 highest in the conference.

And with the production has also come praise. In late March, O’Donnell was named as Player of the Week for both the B1G and the Collegiate Baseball Newspaper. Let the numbers or the acclaim tell you – O’Donnell is the real deal.

Ethan O'Donnell hits a home run against Indiana.

Jay Beshears

Another second-year, Beshears went into the 2022 season with less fanfare than the aforementioned O’Donnell. Regardless, he has burst onto the scene, becoming a top player in both Evanston and the B1G as a whole.

Beshears has been excellent at the plate this season, leading Northwestern in total hits (48) and triples (two), while putting up top five numbers in batting average (.324), OPS (.916), doubles (11), home runs (six), RBI (30) and slugging percentage (.547). That slugging percentage is also good for tied-25th in the conference.

Jay Beshears hits a walk-off single to defeat Penn State

And just like O’Donnell, Beshears was named a Collegiate Baseball Newspaper Player of the Week.

But if being the ’Cats best at the plate wasn’t enough, he brings production from another spot: on the mound. Despite commonly playing second base, Beshears also serves as a, though rarely used, effective arm in the bullpen. In four and one-thirds innings pitched, he’s only allowed two hits and struck out five batters. And he’s made good use of his short time on the bump, as he has the most saves of anyone on the team.

Hitting or pitching, Beshears has been the most pleasant of surprises for Northwestern.

Sean Sullivan

He’s a first-year. He’s a leftie. And so far through the season, he’s been an ace in the Wildcats rotation. Sullivan got the nod of confidence early, starting in the club’s third game, and he hasn’t looked back.

When Sullivan’s pitching, the ’Cats will be in the game, reflected by his record of five wins and one loss in eleven appearances. Of course, it’s easy to be in the game when your pitcher sports a 3.83 earned run average, which is the second-lowest of any Northwestern starter, and top 15 in the B1G. That ERA isn’t just the result of good defense behind him; Sullivan has 68 strikeouts on the season, eighth-most in the conference, and he’s walked just 19 batters, which is tied ninth-fewest amongst B1G pitchers.

He may be new to campus, but Sean Sullivan is already establishing himself as a household name with his stellar pitching.

The Big Picture

While the numbers O’Donnell, Beshears, and Sullivan put up are impressive, looking at the overall team stats tells a story full of both promise and concern.

Compared to the rest of the B1G, Northwestern’s pitching has been successful. The ’Cats have been top five in the B1G in shutouts and total hits allowed, while also allowing the fewest walks of any roster.

On the other hand, the Wildcats’ hitting leaves something to be desired. Northwestern finds itself near the bottom of the B1G in batting average, total hits and walks drawn. A fifth-ranked slugging percentage has kept the lineup afloat, but overall the batting stats are subpar and will have to improve if Northwestern wants to compete with the best the B1G has to offer.

This year’s Northwestern baseball team is very young. The roster consists of only seven fourth-year or graduate students and most of the the key contributors are second- or first-years. That much youth, coupled with a change in the coaching regime, is sure to cause drastic ups and downs. But recently, Northwestern has found more ups, or at least hasn’t seen the depths of the early part of the season. Overcoming the aforementioned 2-10 start, the team since has a record of 18-10 and are enjoying themselves every step of the way.

Things were turbulent at the beginning, but much like the plants when spring rolls around, Coach Reynolds and the team seem to have evened out. And with more conference play and the postseason in sight, the Wildcats are looking to bloom.

Northwestern's pitching rotation looks to spark the Wildcats down the stretch.