Welcome back – or for some, welcome for the first time.
The Wildcats came into the season looking very different from 2022. Most notably, NU hired Jim Foster to be the team’s new head coach after interim head coach Josh Reynolds retired after last season. Foster last coached at West Point for Army and has amassed a reputation in the college baseball world for rebuilding programs.
Foster certainly has his work cut out for him. Northwestern went 24-27 overall and 10-14 in the Big Ten last year and hasn’t had a winning season since 2000. Most of this year’s roster wasn’t born when that season took place.
To make matters worse, multiple key contributors from last year’s team didn’t return. The top four team leaders in batting average all left via the transfer portal. Second-year pitcher Sean Sullivan, one of just two Wildcat pitchers to start more than 10 games last year and the team leader in strikeouts, left for Wake Forest. All told, just four of the players from Northwestern’s final starting lineup last year are back for this campaign.
Foster compensated for the losses by bringing nine transfer players into the program, although only one of them comes from another Power Five program. The new-look Wildcat roster provided a lot to analyze, for better or worse.
Graduate pitcher Michael Farinelli got the start on opening day, and surrendered four earned runs in four innings of work while collecting three strikeouts. Graduate pitcher Ryan Keenan and third-year pitcher Kellen Pate both pitched scoreless innings in relief.
The Northwestern offense struggled to find its footing while Texas State enjoyed a healthy stream of runs. The Wildcats would finally get on the board in the eighth inning, thanks to RBI singles from second-year utility player Alex Roessner and graduate designated hitter Cooper Foard, but Texas State had already scored 12 at that point. Too little, too late.
Third-year pitcher Matt McClure got the start in his first appearance as a Wildcat after transferring from Loyola Marymount. After holding the Bobcats scoreless for his first two innings, McClure gave up six runs before he was pulled in the fourth inning. Not that any other Wildcat pitcher fared better, as each relief pitcher ended the day with at least three earned runs, and none pitched two full innings.
Offensively, the Wildcats opened the scoring with an RBI single from graduate right-fielder Griffin Arnone. Despite not appearing in the first game, Arnone was a bright spot in the ’Cats lineup on Saturday, going 2-for-4 at the plate with a home run and three RBI. Third-year third-baseman Vincent Bianchina also went 2-for-4 and had two runs, but these stats feel moot when the opposing offense puts up 20.
O pitching, where art thou?
Second-year pitcher Grant Comstock started the series-finisher and lasted just two innings while allowing five earned runs. Just like game two, none of the five relief pitchers held Texas State scoreless.
While the pitching seemed to regress, the offense improved on last game’s tally, and more than doubled the amount of runs scored in game one. Fourth-year first-baseman Stephen Hrustich went 2-for-3 with two RBI and two walks. Third-year shortstop Tony Livermore collected three hits, leading the team. Second-year catcher Bennett Markinson grabbed a hit, run and RBI in two at-bats off the bench.
Despite the bleak scores, Northwestern did leave Texas with positives. Hrustich, Bianchina and Livermore all impressed, hitting at or over .333 in double digit at-bats. Keenan and Pate stopped an otherwise red-hot Bobcat offense out of the bullpen, and have certainly earned appearances for next weekend.
On the other hand, the Wildcat arms have to put this weekend behind them – and fast. Texas State is a tough opponent, and it was the first action these pitchers have had all year, but allowing double-digit runs every game will get NU swept more often than not. Consistency is another aspect that has yet to show up. Only five players started all three games last weekend, and each outing featured a unique top of the order. This part will come with time, as Foster and the squad settle into the season. Regardless, it would help to at least have your first three batters locked down.
Northwestern will look to get the first win of its season, and of Foster’s tenure, next weekend in Spartanburg, South Carolina. They’ll play Gardner-Webb University (1-3, 0-0 Big South), Presbyterian College (1-2, 0-0 Big South) and USC Upstate (3-0, 0-0 Big South).