Baseball: Series for the season: Cats take on Spartans

Christine Todd

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David Jensen, Joe Muraski, Chad Noble, Steve Sanders and Alex Seyferth will step into Rocky Miller Park for their final series in purple and white this weekend.

After four seasons together, the graduating players have shared the ride: the highs, the lows and the in-betweens.

But it’s not quite time to let the nostalgia set in.

“We’re just trying to take care of business,” Noble said, looking toward his final conference series, Northwestern (22-29, 11-10 Big Ten) against Michigan State (33-17, 10-11).

Coach Paul Stevens said what the seniors and the rest of the team have done up to this point doesn’t matter too much. Instead, the Cats have to focus on seizing their chance to do something “extraordinary,” something special nobody on the current team has experienced: compete in the Big Ten Tournament.

Before one of the team’s first practices in February, the skipper said he believed his 2010 squad would be “as exciting and unpredictable as 2006 was.” The end of that season marked the last time the Wildcats battled in the conference tournament’s field of six. Could Stevens dub himself a certified fortuneteller? Could his early-season premonition mean NU will be traveling to Columbus, Ohio, next week?

Yes, it could. In fact, it’s very likely. But it’s not guaranteed.

The Cats can cement their spot in the tournament by notching either two or three victories against the Spartans. If NU wins just one game, the standings shuffle gets a little stickier, and a number of situations could arise to wipe the team from the tournament table.

NU has lost just three series this season, to Ohio State, Indiana and Michigan. Against those teams, Michigan State compiled a 4-3 record, compared to NU’s 3-6. Those numbers hint the Spartans might have a slight statistical edge.

But the Cats have a way of surpassing expectations and unexpectedly rising to the top. Jensen said that’s one thing he would impart to the younger players when he graduates.

“The worse people say you’re going to be is probably the better you’ll end up,” the lefty said. “This was supposed to be, as predicted, our worst year in (the seniors’) four years here, and it’s been our best. No one knows anything, other than the guys on the team.”

That’s the key to it all, Stevens said. People can predict whatever outcome they want, but they can’t tell what’s inside his players. Noble has confidence in the Cats’ “Cinderella story.” The catcher said as long as the team can make it to the Big Ten Tournament, NU will move through the matchups “pretty easily” due to the squad’s strong pitching. Junior lefty Eric Jokisch and sophomore righty Francis Brooke boast conference ERAs of 3.60 and 5.20, respectively, while a solid supporting cast fills out the bullpen. Sophomore reliever Paul Snieder leads the conference with 11 saves. Snieder, who also plays first base and hits third in the lineup, has recorded 34 strikeouts in 36.1 innings of work.

Last week, Jokisch said he is mentally prepared to take on the conference’s best, whether in regular or postseason play. The southpaw said he knows how to take the mound without caring what his opponents think.

“Go ahead, prepare however you want,” Jokisch said. “But I’m going to go out there and pitch my ballgame. They know I throw changeups, they know I mix up fastballs and that’s fine. If they can hit me, good. But I’m going to go out there and try to make them do it. I have confidence that I can get anybody out.”

Adding to the team’s confidence this weekend, the Cats have their final home field advantage. Saturday, the seniors will run the bases for an anticipated teary-eyed crowd of parents and fans.

“There’s going to be a lot of tears of joy for what this group will have accomplished,” Stevens said. “That is something I am definitely excited about, how it’s going to move forward with the group of guys that are involved in what’s going on here right now.”