Call to arms answered by Cats’ hurlers (Baseball)

Ariel Alexovich

“Collegiate Baseball” must be eating its words right now.

Thinking that Northwestern would be hard hit after graduating its top three pitchers last season, the national newspaper picked the Wildcats to finish last in the Big Ten in its preseason poll.

But the NU pitching staff hasn’t their starting pitchers ranking in the top seven of the conference in ERA, the Cats ended the season in fifth place, earning their third postseason appearance in four years.

As the fifth-seeded Cats (25-23, 15-14 Big Ten) travel to Minneapolis to face No. 4 seed Penn State in the first round of the Big Ten tournament today, NU coach Paul Stevens wants to prove even more people wrong.

“The bottom line is that we finished fifth and get to go to the tournament, which is something that a few teams picked ahead of us couldn’t pull off,” Stevens said. “We get to go to the dance and get to continue to perform miracles.”

Leading the way for NU is junior Dan Konecny, who currently ranks third in the Big Ten with an ERA of 2.93. As the Cats’ only returning starting pitcher, the right hander is comfortable with being the team’s go-to guy.

Although mononucleosis limited Konecny’s playing time last season, he didn’t let the preseason negative press affect his confidence.

“Obviously when you lose the top three starters, people aren’t going to think much of you,” Konecny said. “But I always knew I could throw, and my teammates knew it and my coaches knew it.”

Sophomore J.A. Happ also considers himself a team leader. Happ, who last season was named a first-team All-Big Ten reliever, stepped up to the No. 2 spot and hasn’t looked back since.

So far this season, Happ has struck out 91 batters and his 3.20 ERA ranks fourth in the Big Ten.

“Everybody here knew that he was going to be a stud like he is, that was expected,” Konecny said.

After Happ racked up three conference Pitcher of the Week awards and one national Pitcher of the Week honor this season, it might be only “Collegiate Baseball” that’s surprised.

Heading into the season with the top two pitching spots locked in, the Cats were still worried about who would start the remaining two games of the four-game Big Ten series. Fortunately for NU, it never had to worry about relief pitchers adjusting to a starting role because this year’s freshmen stepped in right away. Brauer and freshman Mark Ori consistently started the Cats’ Saturday and Sunday games.

“They might be a No. 3, No. 4 here, but they could be a No. 1 or No. 2 at another school,” sophomore shortstop Jon Mikrut said.

Although Brauer — seventh in the conference with a 3.50 ERA — is now comfortable at the No. 3 or 4 spot, it has taken the left hander a while to secure the confidence of his teammates.

“Brauer at the beginning of the year would always give us a little scare — he’d always load the bases and then strike out the next three guys,” sophomore reliever Chris Hayes said.

Sidearm pitcher Hayes and the rest of NU’s bullpen have picked up the slack when the starters faltered. Sophomore Jon Mikrut has moved from his starting shortstop position to the mound 15 times this season. Junior left fielder Dan Pohlman, right-hander Stanley Finch and midweek relievers Julio Siberio and Evan Blesoff have helped shut down opponents in the late innings.

Although NU has been mired in a hitting slump recently, it has faith that its pitching staff will hold the Penn State (26-26, 17-15) offense in check. In the two team’s most recent matchup, Penn State took 3 of 4 games in State College, Pa.

“Looking back to that series against Penn State, those games could have been ours,” Stevens said. “It doesn’t matter what we’ve done up to this point in the season, what matters is what we do now.”

TAKE SIX: Six NU players were named to the All-Big Ten team, the conference announced Tuesday.

Sophomore pitcher J.A. Happ was NU’s only representative on the first team for the second straight year. Outfielder David Gresky and pitcher Dan Konecny made the second team.

First baseman Travis Tharp, pitcher Dan Brauer and shortstop Jon Mikrut were all selected to the third team.