When coach Paul Stevens picked up the baseball that Paul Snieder smacked for a walk-off, three-run home run against Michigan State in the final game of the 2010 Big Ten regular season, he knew the ball meant something special. It represented more than a thrilling comeback victory that sealed Northwestern’s first Big Ten Tournament berth since 2006. It represented the trajectory of the Cats’ come-from-behind season, the “never give up” attitude Stevens loved about his team.
Stevens, who had been ejected after arguing a call in the eighth inning of the game and was sitting feet from where the ball landed beyond the right-field fence, tucked the ball into his back pocket and rushed to celebrate with his players following the Wildcats’ 8-6 victory. Nine months later, Stevens still keeps that ball in a special place, and he still gets emotional talking about that moment. The shockwaves sent from Snieder’s home run still resonate with Stevens.
“Things happen for reasons, and (the end of that game), I firmly believe, is just something that sent a lot of messages, not only to me, but these players,” Stevens said. “You learn things in probably some of the most mysterious ways. And when you think that it’s not possible, somehow, some way and with some tremendous divine intervention, things find a way to work themselves out.”
After losing four key players from last year’s team, NU might have to find that “divine intervention,” that cosmic blueprint leading all the pieces to fall into place, once again this season. The Cats knew they would lose Chad Noble and Eric Jokisch, but they didn’t expect to be without Arby Fields and Zach Morton, two integral pieces on last year’s team.
Noble caught roughly 47 percent of attempted base-stealers last season and was regarded by Stevens as the “backbone” of the squad. Jokisch, the staff’s ace, posted a 4.39 ERA in 2010 and struck out 62 batters, giving NU a chance to compete with the best in the Big Ten every time he toed the rubber. Noble and Jokisch, who were both drafted by the Chicago Cubs, were no easy task to replace.
But around the first week of December, the Cats suffered two successive blows: A news release went out announcing sophomore centerfielder and lead-off hitter Fields planned to transfer, and Morton, a First-Team All-Big Ten performer and expected Friday starter, tore his ACL in what Stevens dubbed “a freak little accident” during conditioning.
“He was going to be the person,” Stevens said of Morton. “He had a tremendous summer (in the New England Collegiate Baseball League) … It really hurts because he’s a tremendous teammate, he’s a phenomenal leader. He’s someone that is that calming force in the storm. That’s what I love about him.”
It’s hard to imagine how the team will fill the voids left by Fields and Morton, but that’s the task Stevens has to undertake.
Filling Morton’s top spot in the rotation will likely be junior righty Francis Brooke, who last season had the best ERA among non-relief pitchers, 4.33, while notching five wins for the Cats. Opponents did damage to Brooke when he left the ball over the middle of the plate, so he hopes to implement a new approach in 2011: pitching to the corners of the strike zone.
With Brooke holding down one rotation spot, the team has to find two other weekend starters. Stevens offered four names he sees battling to earn those roles: sophomores Luke Farrell and Jack Havey, junior Michael Jahns and freshman Dan Tyson. Farrell might have an inside track after he allowed two runs and struck out eight over six innings against Western Michigan last weekend.
Regardless of who gets the weekend nods from Stevens, NU’s starting rotation has quite the security blanket: senior set-up man Matt Gailey and Snieder, the team’s closer, form one of the conference’s best bullpens.
“You know if the starter starts to get into trouble or starts to get tired, you have arms that you can go to that are going to get the job done,” Brooke said. “It just instills a little more confidence in the entire team knowing that we have the bullpen to fall back on, and we should be strong as a pitching staff.”
Gailey, a lefty who Stevens called “smart and crafty,” posted a team-best 1.52 ERA last season in 24 relief innings. Snieder, a preseason Third-Team All-American as a reliever, struck out 35 in 40 innings out of the pen, while collecting 12 saves.
Without Noble, Stevens will turn to junior Geoff Rowan to tote the tools of ignorance. Though Rowan mostly manned left field last season, he was recruited as a catcher and saw time behind the dish in 14 games in 2010.
Rowan’s position change represents a transformed lineup of moving pieces. Only two position players – senior third baseman Chris Lashmet and junior right fielder Chris Kontos – return to the same spot as last year. Junior Trevor Stevens, a returning Second-Team All-Big Ten shortstop, was moved to centerfield to replace Fields, while the left field situation resembles a round of musical chairs. Junior Hamilton Wise, senior Brant Cavagnaro and freshman Nick Linne will battle for the spot Morton left open when he injured his knee, as Stevens planned to move his star utility man to the outfield to reduce the wear and tear on his arm during the games he wasn’t on the mound.
The remaining infield positions likely will be filled by Havey at first base and either Patrick Miller or Cody Stevens, both freshmen, at the keystone sack. And with Cody’s older brother Trevor moving to the outfield, coach Stevens has tabbed freshman Kyle Ruchim at shortstop.
“Kyle’s the real deal,” Stevens said. “He’s going to be a pretty dang good player here, and we’re excited about having him. … You’re going to watch Ruchim and you’re going to love him.”
With new faces in new places, it’ll be interesting to see how NU’s defense responds this year after posting a Big Ten-worst .952 fielding percentage a season ago. The team committed eight errors in its opening weekend, while going 1-3 at the Red Raider Classic in Lubbock, Texas.
Regardless of how the defense plays, NU, along with every other team in the country, will have to embrace some small ball this year. New BBCOR-standardized bats kill the powerful “trampoline effect” old aluminum bats had on balls.
“You will see home run and power numbers go down a lot,” Lashmet said. “You’re not going to see off-your-front-foot home runs anymore or the jam-shot home runs. Those are just turning into pop-ups. But if you square it up, you’ll be fine.”
NU already felt the impact of the new bats in the early action, collecting just 15 hits in its first three games before breaking out with 11 in the fourth game. Still, the Cats know the opening weekend isn’t necessarily indicative of the season to come. A season ago, NU was outscored 58-9 in its opening series and wound up the No. 3 seed in the Big Ten Tournament.
Getting a taste of postseason play last year has the Cats thirsty for more. This year, the team’s goal is to go deeper into the tournament, after being the first team eliminated in 2010.
“It’s definitely a big motivation, because in getting there we showed that we can play with the best teams in the Big Ten,” Brooke said. “We all know we’re capable of doing that.”
Stevens knows things will work out, though at this juncture he doesn’t know exactly how. Perhaps the key to turning capability into success is hidden in another lesson Stevens espoused when talking about the baseball that divinely intervened against Michigan State last season.
“We can’t control everything, I don’t believe that,” said Stevens, eyes shifting to his players. “The things that you can control, you try to control. The other things, boy, you just let them loose and you let them find a way to make it happen. Good things happen to good people, and that’s a lot of good people out there.”