Baseball: Wildcats face crucial series with Fighting Illini

Alex Putterman, Reporter

In late February, two games into Northwestern’s 2013 campaign, outfielder Walker Moses outlined the team’s goal for the season.

“It’s definitely to get in the top six and make it into the (Big Ten) playoffs,” the sophomore said at the time.

Now, two months later, the Wildcats (17-15, 6-9 Big Ten) need to close their season strong to accomplish that objective. The battle for the final few spots in the Big Ten Tournament begins this weekend with a three-game series against Illinois (24-12, 6-6 Big Ten) in Champaign.

The matchup will be a clash of opposing strengths: NU prides itself on pitching, while Illinois wins with its bats. The Fighting Illini are averaging 6.7 runs per game and second in the Big Ten in batting average, slugging percentage, on-base percentage, walks, doubles, home runs, total bases and runs scored, trailing only Indiana in each category.

“We’re excited to go play at U of I,” redshirt senior shortstop Trevor Stevens said. “It’s a great hitters ballpark, and we know our pitchers are going to shut them down, like they have been all year.”

The Cats, fourth in the conference in ERA and fifth in batting average against, will return to their usual starting rotation after the weather and subsequent game at Wrigley Field threw the staff out of sync last weekend. Redshirt senior Zach Morton will start Friday, followed by senior Luke Farrell on Saturday and sophomore Brandon Magallones on Sunday.

Illinois’ offense is powered by senior outfielder Justin Parr, who leads the Big Ten with a .435 batting average and 98 total bases. He is second in slugging percentage, on-base percentage and RBI.

Justin’s twin brother, Jordan, a redshirt junior, is hitting .310 with 34 runs scored, tied for third in the Big Ten in that category, and 17 stolen bases, tied for second.

In the aftermath of a 5-0 loss to Wisconsin-Milwaukee on Wednesday, coach Paul Stevens said he was glad his team’s struggles came outside of Big Ten play, calling the coming weekend series “extremely important.” Given the conference standings, that could be an understatement.

At 6-9 in Big Ten play, NU stands eighth in the conference with nine Big Ten games remaining. Michigan State holds sixth place with a 5-4 record, and Illinois is seventh at 6-6. A failure to at least take two out of three from the Fighting Illini could end the Cats’ postseason hopes.

“I’m sure it’s in guys’ minds,”  Stevens said. “But we’re more focused about the next game, more so than the weekend. We just got to prepare for Friday, and then however that plays out, then we’ll move on to Saturday.”

If NU does handle Illinois, it will have another shot to gain ground from a borderline playoff team next weekend, when they host fifth-place Ohio State, currently 9-6 in conference. The Cats’ last Big Ten series of the season will pit them against Indiana (31-8, 8-4 Big Ten) from May 10 to 12.

What happens if the Cats do qualify for the tournament?

“If we get into the playoffs,” Moses continued, back in February. “We’ll make a run for it.”