Baseball: Cats fought through injuries

Jonah Rosenblum

In both 2010 and 2011, Northwestern capped off its regular season with exciting comeback victories over Michigan State.

That’s where the similarities end.

In 2010, the Wildcats’ epic win over the Spartans launched them into the Big Ten Tournament.

In 2011, NU’s season-ending victory simply helped salvage a disappointing weekend that saw the Cats score just seven runs in three games while getting bounced from the playoff picture.

It’s tempting to see NU’s 2011 season in a negative light. The Cats were one of just three Big Ten teams to finish with an overall record below .500, and they went just 10-13 in conference play.

Yet, when one considers the obstacles this NU team had to overcome, this year can hardly be called a let down.

NU essentially coped with a makeshift starting rotation for the entire season. After Eric Jokisch went pro, junior Zach Morton tore his ACL, and fellow junior Francis Brooke went down with a case of tendinitis. In a sport that requires three starting pitchers, the Cats took on the Big Ten without their three top guns.

On offense. Morton’s loss compounded the departures of catcher Chad Noble and center fielder Arby Fields, leaving the Cats without three of their best hitters.

Given all this, one might have expected coach Paul Stevens’ team to collapse.

But the problem was NU never read the script. The Cats apparently didn’t get the message that this wasn’t their season, that destiny wasn’t on their side this time around. Instead of collapsing, they contended into the final weekend of the season, and in so doing, left their fans with plenty to be excited about for next year.

Ultimately, they were winners until the very end. It didn’t matter when they were eliminated from the playoffs Friday. They came right back and beat the Spartans on Saturday to spoil Michigan State’s shot at sole possession of the Big Ten title.

“There isn’t a whole lot to play for on this Saturday in a lot of people’s minds except for the fact that what kind of pride do you take into this when you put on that Northwestern uniform,” Stevens said. “My group of winners found a way to sit there and say, ‘really, we don’t give in, and we don’t give up.'”

And in notching one last win, NU showed promise heading into next year.

On the pitching rubber, Luke Farrell became the team’s ace after making just four starts last season. The sophomore led the team in strikeouts and wins.

“Watching him grow this season was amazing,” junior catcher Geoff Rowan said. “Even when he didn’t have his best stuff, he still came out for six or seven innings, which is exactly what we needed.”

With Brooke, Morton, Farrell and junior pitcher Michael Jahns all in the mix for next year’s rotation, this team should have plenty of options on the mound.

“We’re definitely going to be deep,” Farrell said. “We’re going to have a really good opportunity to win a lot of games.”

NU also stumbled upon a new reliever this season, as freshman Kyle Ruchim impressed with four saves and an astounding 25 strikeouts in 18.2 innings.

“Mr. Ruchim has been everything we thought he was,” Stevens said. “He’s going to be someone who you’re going to hear an awful lot about as the years progress.”

Farrell added his vote of confidence.

“You never want to give up the ball,” Farrell said, “but when you turn it over to someone like Kyle, you have all the confidence in the world that he’ll finish out the game.”

Ruchim was far from the only freshman to step up. Right fielder Jack Livingston posted a .340 average, and outfielder Nick Linne played impressively at times, compiling a .266 average. With Morton, speedy shortstop Trevor Stevens and powerful slugger Paul Snieder back to lead, the Cats will undoubtedly score plenty of runs next year, and this time, they’ll have the rotation to make their leads stand.

NU is fortunate not to lose very many players heading into 2012. The Cats’ only major hole entering next season will be at third base, where Chris Lashmet led the team with a .353 batting average.

“Chris meant so much to the team,” Farrell said. “He’s broken a lot of records here at Northwestern. He’s up on a lot of leaderboards. He put a great season together this year, and everybody’s going to miss him both on and off the field.”

But they will move on and fight without him, just as they fought back from all the losses they had this season, and with a talented corps of younger talent, the Cats should be able to make Lashmet plenty proud next year.

“I’m very excited for next season,” Rowan said. “We’re going to be one year older, and we’re all going to be better, so the expectations are definitely high.”

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