Baseball: Youth fills Cats with comeback spirit

James Graham

As he stepped into the batter’s box in the bottom of the ninth inning Sunday, second baseman Jake Owens was having an awful series at the plate. The Wildcats’ premier hitter had gone a miserable 2 for 15 from the plate with four strikeouts over the weekend.

But in the game’s biggest moment, Owens shrugged off his past mistakes.

“We were telling Jake just before the ninth, ‘you’ve been horrible all game, but you’re going to win this ball game’,” coach Paul Stevens said. “And he did.”

With the game knotted, 4-4, the senior slapped a walk-off double down the right-field line, scoring shortstop Tommy Finn. Northwestern defeated Michigan State, 5-4, earning the series split.

Owens’ at-bat characterized NU’s gutsy play for the latter half of the weekend. The Cats fell behind early in the series, losing the first two games, 11-6 and 6-1.

Starters Joe Muraski and Eric Jokisch had trouble keeping the ball over the plate, giving up nine walks and 11 earned runs in a combined nine innings of work.

The Cats’ offense failed to capitalize on opportunities, leaving 19 men on base through the first three games.

But despite falling behind, the team remained optimistic.

“We’re still confident despite our problems,” said junior catcher Tony Vercelli after Friday’s loss. “Baseball is a game of streaks and we know we can turn it around.”

Sure enough, the Cats fought back. Fueled by two solid pitching outings from senior Bo Schultz and sophomore David Jensen and some timely hitting, the team won the final two games by one-run margins.

Winning close games has been a difficult task for NU with in recent years. The Cats were just 4-9 last season in Big Ten games decided by two runs or fewer.

The team’s new, more aggressive approach was crucial in picking up key runs, especially when NU fought back from behind. Freshman third baseman Chris Lashmet said the Cats’ movement on the bases kept the Spartans’ defense honest, which gave the team additional scoring opportunities.

“We knew that if we put enough pressure on the defense they would eventually crack,” Lashmet said.

Much of the team’s newfound enthusiasm and spirit can be attributed to the injection of youth into the lineup.

In addition to Jokisch, who Stevens said will be a star in the Big Ten, newcomers Lashmet, Nate Roberts and Matt Gailey all contributed to the effort. The three freshmen went a combined 10-for-30 in the series, with three runs scored and three RBIs.

More importantly, Stevens said the younger players have brought hard work and fearlessness to a program in desperate need of a spark.

“I like what the future looks like,” Stevens said. “This is a whole different group from last year and it’s showing.”

The emergence of younger talent has also reinvigorated some of NU’s returning players. Despite some early fears about the team’s youth, the performance this weekend now has those veterans believing they can put last year’s disappointment behind them.

“Early in the season some of the veteran players felt added pressure to perform given our youth,” Owens said. “But their play has made us all very comfortable and allowed us to loosen up.”

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