Northwestern senior first baseman Anthony Calarco and senior pitcher Mike Doherty walk back to the dugout after a key inning. Doherty and Calarco will be two of the stars on this year's Northwestern team, a squad that'll suffer plenty of growing pangs following the loss of two of its best hitters. Photo by Brandi Simpson / North by Northwestern

There’s nothing quite like heading to the local baseball stadium and watching one of the greatest American pastimes, enjoying a hot dog and basking in the warm summer sunshine, and hopefully seeing your favorite team eke out a narrow win with a long home run in the late innings. That is, of course, unless you don’t have a particular rooting interest, and the baseball season actually starts in February instead of the spring, and the University doesn’t exactly sell ballpark staples as concessions, and the sun hasn’t been out in almost two weeks, and the local baseball stadium isn’t exactly easy to get to, and your favorite team is still trying to find itself.

Yeah, you can probably tell where this season preview is going.

After a season that saw them start 11-0 before tumbling to 10th in the Big Ten, Northwestern baseball opens up their 2022 campaign Friday afternoon with a series at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. In the effort, they’ll begin to answer questions that have plagued the team all season: how will the offense adjust with the departure of some of their top star talent to the greener pastures of Major League Baseball? How will the pitching staff fare after posting one of the worst ERAs in the Big Ten? And – perhaps the greatest question of all – how will the team fare under their new manager?

In short, there’s a lot to take in and not much time, so here’s the windup:

No Offense, But:

Northwestern infielder Evan Minarovic swings at a low pitch. Minarovic is one of many returning players this season who will be looking to make an impact on the starting lineup. Photo by Joanne Haner / North by Northwestern

Here’s the question Northwestern faces this offseason: how do you replace a bonafide superstar who had the offensive production to buoy a whole team and the clutch mentality of an MLB All-Star hitter?

That’s just the kind of hole Shawn Goosenberg left at shortstop when he was drafted by the Chicago White Sox in last year’s MLB draft. A First Team All-Big Ten selection, Goosenberg was the top hitter for the ’Cats in almost every category, leading the team in batting average (.362), home runs (14) and hits (55). He also led the team in clutch moments, picking up several walk-off hits, meaning he was able to win games for the ’Cats with a single swing of his bat.

That’s not the only hole the ’Cats have to fill, however, as outfielder Michael Trautwein also left for MLB’s Cincinnati Reds. It’s another huge blow for Northwestern, as Trautwein often played second-fiddle to Goosenberg, whacking 11 home runs and plating a team-high 35 RBIs last season.

In short, the ’Cats lost two of their top-scoring threats in one offseason, a devastating blow for any team. Luckily, there are nine hitters in a lineup, and plenty of star power remains for Northwestern.

Take, for example, senior first-baseman Anthony Calarco, who batted leadoff for the team’s potent offense last season. Also named First Team All-Big Ten, Calarco is a true champion in his own right, whacking nine home runs last year and posting the team’s second-highest batting average with a .295 average. With his potent hitstick, Calarco may be shifted down in the lineup to take advantage of his contact hitting.

Also returning for the ’Cats is junior catcher Stephen Hrustich, who is a worthy threat of his own down the stretch. While he didn’t earn any awards for his performances, Hrustich was still a power threat, whacking 11 home runs and coming in third on the team with 26 RBIs, having done so in half the length of a normal season. As a result, the team will rely on the duo of Calarco and Hrustich for most of their offense at the top of the lineup.

They’re far from the only potential stars for the ’Cats, though. Sophomore outfielder Ethan O’Donnell will also likely step up in the departure of Trautwein, and will look to improve upon his six home runs and 26 RBIs from last season. Also noteworthy is the arrival of graduate outfielder Ruben Fontes, who transferred from Davidson this past offseason; Fontes will be a likely spark plug for the ’Cats, as he led Davidson with 12 home runs and whacked 32 RBIs last season.

Other players will also be looking to pick up new major roles on this team. Sophomore middle infielder Vincent Bianchina, for example, will likely become the new face of the interior diamond for the ’Cats, looking to improve upon his 33 hits and .270 batting average from last year. Also seeing more playing time, however, will be role players like junior Evan Minarovic – who struggled down the stretch last season, posting just a .206 average – and sophomore infielder Tony Livermore, who will be seeking his first permanent starting job.

In short, this team has enough experience to carry them in certain games, but unfortunately, a lot of games are decided by one man: the pitcher. This is where it starts to get bad.

Pitch, Please

Doherty winds up to deliver during a game last season. Doherty is the most experienced starter on this squad, and will hopefully return to form in 2022. Photo by Brandi Simpson / North by Northwestern

Let’s start with some good news: Northwestern did not lose their best pitcher this offseason. Senior righthander Mike Doherty is returning for one more season after leading the ’Cats in all pitching categories, including innings pitched (63.1) and earned run average (3.69). As the team’s number one starter, he’ll be relied on once again to pick up a heavy workload and pick up some key wins.

Here’s the bad news: Doherty’s pretty much the only reliable pitcher left from last season, as the rest either left for the big leagues – like Tyler Uberstine, who got drafted by the Boston Red Sox – or just plain graduated, like Quinn Lavelle. As a result, the ’Cats will be searching for a few starters to bolster their pitching staff and get them into the later innings.

There’s already a few suspects in the running, with names like Jack Dyke being tossed around for the No. 2 starter. The junior righthander started five games in 2021 – the fourth-most of anyone on the team – but struggled to get into the long game, pitching just 20 innings and posting a less-than-ideal 5.40 ERA. As for the No. 3 spot, there’s a chance first-year Grant Comstock may break the rotation; one of “the best pitchers in Northwest Indiana,” Comstock has a filthy changeup and a 90 mph fastball, and he could likely find himself pushing for a new role.

The strength for the Wildcats’ pitching staff, however, lies in their bullpen. While they did experience a few departures, some of their top relievers remain in the lineup, like junior righthander Reed Smith, who had 15 appearances in relief last season with 19 strikeouts, and sophomore righthander Ben Grable, who pitched a team third-best 4.08 ERA and whiffed 24 batters last season over 17.2 innings of work. There’s also junior righthander Coby Moe, who will likely see an extended role this season in the departures of other closers.

In short, the mound will be a rotating platform to test one’s abilities and see who can step up. The team’s greatest challenge, however, might lie within the dugout.

New Kid off the Block

After six seasons managing the club, Spencer Allen – who had won over 100 games with the team – stepped down from the head coaching gig, saying he wanted to spend more time with his family. At the time of his departure, Northwestern Athletics was in turmoil, as they had no permanent athletic director following the departure of Mike Polisky.

As a result, longtime pitching coach Josh Reynolds – who’s been with the team since 2016 – has stepped up to coach the ’Cats in an interim role. Reynolds is certainly good with the arms, as he’s helped pitchers like Hank Christie, Sam Lawrence and Cooper Wetherbee become stars while with the team. As a result, he’s known for excellent defensive coaching and mentoring young talent to help them get attention from major league teams.. Reynolds, however, has never served in a top role, so it may be a hard adjustment … and one of the main reasons he hasn’t lost the “interim” tag just yet.

That being said, perhaps Reynolds is the perfect man to lead this squad, as his impact on young talent and upstart pitching rotations knows no bounds. With this team looking for leadership and a new starting rotation, Reynolds could play to his strengths and carry this team back into the Big Ten Tournament … or they could fizzle out by April.

All eyes on the season ahead. Photo by Brandi Simpson / North by Northwestern