Wildcats live up to Stevens’ acclaim

Paul Stevens was right.

After just about every game the Wildcats played this year – win or lose, rainout or shine – Northwestern’s baseball coach would offer the same positive predictions about his team.

This was a team that had a chance to go somewhere. It was a special bunch of guys. When their backs were to the wall, they could perform.

And when the sixth-seeded Cats took third in the Big Ten tournament, they legitimized the claims Stevens made about them all year.

Comeback cats

At the tail end of the season, the Cats played up to the potential they had previously demonstrated only in flashes. After winning its last two conference games to slide into the final tournament slot, NU came from behind to knock off the No. 3 and No. 1 seeds in the tournament on consecutive days. And although the Cats dropped their final two games to the eventual champion and runner-up, by the end of the season they hardly resembled the team that lost to lowly Chicago State in its home opener.

“After the Chicago State game we did some soul searching,” pitcher Gabe Ribas said. “We sat down and made a list of goals. We started to believe in coach, and he started to believe in us.”

At the time, the Cats were 7-13 overall and 1-3 in the Big Ten, but they set lofty goals – including a third-place finish in league play.

The results weren’t immediate – the Cats didn’t really turn their season around until they took two of three from Penn State and Illinois on consecutive weekends in mid-April.

Filling the gaps

Heading into the April 13-14 series with Purdue, Stevens had some major question marks in his lineup – specifically at the corners of his infield. The Cats left West Lafayette, Ind., with first base solidified by Travis Tharp, who went on to become a third-team All-Big Ten selection.

Additional position switches were made at Purdue, as a hamstring injury to center fielder Steve Haake put Dan Pohlman in the outfield, where he would stay for the rest of the season. Pohlman hit .299 in Big Ten play, and Haake’s versatility – he split time with Josh Lieberman at third base – allowed NU to add a valuable bat to its lineup while shaping up the hot corner.

all-mound joy

Before the season started, NU’s four-man rotation looked set with seniors Ribas, Zach Schara and Ryan Bos, and sophomore Dan Konecny. Little did Stevens know, only Ribas would stay healthy throughout the Big Ten season.

Schara was the first to go down, fracturing a bone in his left hand in mid-March. The left hander didn’t get his first conference start until the Cats visited Illinois in the fifth Big Ten weekend. But during that same series, the Cats lost Konecny, who sat out with mononucleosis until the conference tournament. The give-and-take continued at Big Tens – Konecny returned but Bos had to pitch with a sore shoulder.

Despite the injuries, NU’s pitching was its main strength all year. Schara and Ribas became NU’s all-time leaders in strikeouts and innings pitched, and Bos’ 2.39 ERA was the second-best in the Big Ten, earning him third-team all-conference honors.

Furthermore, the Cats were outstanding in relief, with freshman J.A. Happ (1.52 ERA) earning three saves and first-team All-Big Ten honors. Pohlman and senior Andy Adams were also effective out of the bullpen, and at the end of the season, freshman Jon Mikrut shifted from shortstop to notch saves in both of NU’s wins at the Big Ten tournament. Mikrut didn’t give up an earned run in 13 innings this year.

“With our pitching staff it was like whenever someone got healthy, another person went down,” Ribas said. “Happ, Pohlman and Adams really stepped up and gave us quality innings.”

The usual suspects

While NU suffered injuries and position changes elsewhere, Stevens had five guys he counted on day in and day out.

Mikrut, juniors Brandon Ackley, Ken Padgett and Eric Roeder, and sophomore David Gresky all started more than 50 games for the Cats this season.

Ackley and Gresky anchored the outfield with solid defensive play. Ackley led the team in hitting with a .305 average, while Gresky led the team with 31 RBIs and 36 runs scored.

Padgett, NU’s catcher, was second on the team in batting (.304) and hit a team-high six home runs.

“The guy nobody gives enough credit to is Ken Padgett,” Ribas said. “He did an outstanding job handling the staff, and there’s no other guy that deserves the team MVP more.”

Mikrut was second on the team in RBIs with 30, starting every game but one at shortstop.

Solid all year at second base, Roeder came on strong offensively in the second half of the season, hitting three key home runs.

While the Cats lose their top three starting pitchers, all five of the key position players will return for what could be a fruitful 2003 season.