With just two weeks until the start of the 2019 Big Ten Tournament, Northwestern baseball (21-23, 8-10 B1G) is right on the fringe of a postseason berth. Fresh off an impressive series win over Nebraska (24-18, 13-8 B1G), the Wildcats currently sit tied with Maryland (23-25, 8-10 B1G) for the eighth and final conference tournament spot. Northwestern has momentum on their side, as they are 4-1 in their past 5 games.
How they got here
Northwestern has been slowly working their way up the Big Ten standings. After starting the season 5-12, they have gone 16-11 and earned all of their eight conference wins in the process. Their offense, led by senior shortstop Jack Dunn, has been the key to many of those wins. Among qualifying players Dunn leads the team with a .314 batting average, 38 runs, 35 RBIs, 24 walks, a .455 OBP (on-base percentage) and a .877 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage). Usually batting in the leadoff spot, Dunn has been the spark to many rallies, and on Monday garnered his first Big Ten Player of the Week award after posting a .615 batting average. The potential MLB draft pick can also play some defense:
The season's highlights are last weekend’s series win over Nebraska and a series sweep of Ohio State (24-23, 7-11 B1G) from April 5-7. Last week’s non-conference victory over Illinois State, a top-30 team in the country, was also a confidence booster for head coach Spencer Allen and company.
Northwestern’s season will be defined by upcoming series against Rutgers and Minnesota. Rutgers (19-26, 8-9 B1G) sits just above the Wildcats and Terrapins in the Big Ten but is ranked No. 167 in RPI compared to the Wildcats’ No. 99. Winning that series is paramount to avoid having to sweep Minnesota (22-23, 11-7 B1G) to secure a playoff berth in the final series of the regular season. The Gophers sit 28 spots ahead of Northwestern in RPI.
As per usual, the key to success will be quality starting pitching. This has been a trying area for the Wildcats this season. Top starters Quinn Lavelle and freshman Hank Christie are both injured. An unlikely crucial piece moving forward is freshman Mike Doherty, who gave up 18 runs in his first four innings of work this year but has given up just seven earned runs in his last 30 innings.
Another important piece is Ryan Bader, a southpaw who has advanced to being a regular starter in the absence of Lavelle and who allowed just two earned runs in his last 17 innings. The backend of the bullpen will be relied upon in high-leverage situations if Northwestern is able to build up leads late in the game, and is led by closer Nick Paciorek (3.32 ERA, 38 strikeouts). Overall, the pitching staff will need to improve on their 5.32 team ERA if the Wildcats are to make any noise the rest of the year.