Baseball: Stevens calls on resilient ‘Scuba’ Steve Sanders, Cats prepare for Purdue

Jimmy Carlton

Clinging to a late 2-0 lead against Illinois State on Wednesday, Northwestern coach Paul Stevens did something he hadn’t done with his team ahead. He made the call for Steve Sanders.

Sanders had never before pitched in a Wildcats victory. In fact, until this season, he had never pitched at all for the Cats. So when Stevens told the fourth-year junior to take the hill and preserve NU’s narrow edge against the Redbirds, Sanders had some nerves to get over.

Four straight balls did little to settle Sanders’ stomach, but the righty relaxed, regained his composure and reminded himself what he was on the mound to prove.

“When coach put me in I wanted to show everyone that I could get the job done,” Sanders said. “My goal for this year was not just to take the mound for the first time, but also to help this team win. It took me a little while to settle in (Wednesday), but I was able to find the zone and contribute to a victory.”

In just his fourth appearance of the season, and after walking the leadoff hitter, Sanders struck out the next two batters he faced, showcasing the arm strength and array of pitches that had been dormant his first few years on campus because of injury.

“He has a good slider and his velocity is moving up,” said senior catcher Chad Noble, who came to NU in the same class as Sanders four years ago.

Noble has witnessed Sanders’ journey. The 6-foot-1 185-pounder arrived on campus having undergone arthroscopic surgery on his shoulder to repair two tears in his labrum, an injury he suffered during his senior year in high school. He sat out his freshman year at NU to recuperate, but the recovery took longer than expected. Sanders said it became clear during his sophomore season he would not be able to contribute to the team on the mound any time soon. So he spent his junior year playing with the club baseball team, trying to regain his arm strength and get back into the swing of weekly competition.

For the player his coach calls “Scuba,” it was difficult to just sit around.

“Not being on the mound my first few years was certainly tough,” he said. “As a competitor it was never easy to watch from the dugout, but I kept working to get on the field because that’s what I came here to do.

With his spot on the team in doubt, a damaged shoulder and classes and a future career to focus on, Sanders could have hung up his cleats and devoted his glove to play intramural softball. But he stayed loyal to his team and dedicated himself to coming back.

“For me, the fire never really went away,” he said. “There were a lot of opportunities to pack it up and walk away from the game, but I made a decision to stay with the program and work toward getting an opportunity to pitch at NU. It’s felt great to work hard for something and see all that hard work pay off on the field.”

After his positive outing against Illinois State, Sanders hopes he has proved to Stevens he can be trusted to get crucial outs late in games. The Cats used seven pitchers against the Redbirds and will be counting on their staff again this weekend against Purdue.

The team is 5-4 in the Big Ten, tied for third place in the conference and riding a wave of confidence after its series victory last weekend against Minnesota.

“Coming off of back-to-back series wins in the Big Ten, we’re looking to go out and show the conference that we’re not the same team that struggled early in the season,” Sanders said.

As for Sanders’ future, after the season ends and graduation, he will return to his hometown to work for the Los Angeles Dodgers as a baseball operations intern. He hopes to one day be a major league baseball general manager.

Until then, he will continue to help the Cats on the mound, and he will continue to put a smile on the face of his coach.

“Scuba is Scuba,” Stevens said. “All I can tell you is every time he goes out there I’m grinning ear-to-ear. I know where he’s been, I know where he’s wanted to go, I know the trials and tribulations. He’s one of my favorite guys and I just love him to death.”