Baseball: With unanswered questions, Northwestern starts season in California


Daily file photo by Meghan White

Senior utility player Kyle Ruchim rounds second. Ruchim, who was Northwestern’s best hitter in 2013 with a batting average of .365, is abandoning his pitching career to focus on batting.

Alex Putterman, Assistant Sports Editor

Little is certain as Northwestern enters its 2014 baseball season. 

The Wildcats open with a three-game series at USC this weekend, looking to start on the road to redemption from last year’s 22-26 record.

To do so, NU will have to overcome the departures of a whole cast of seniors. The Cats’ two best pitchers and entire starting infield graduated, leaving question marks around the diamond.

The holes will be filled, coach Paul Stevens said, by a committee of players.

“It’s going to change all the time. It’s going to be a committee thing. Right now, we’re moving a lot of people around,” Stevens said. “I don’t know that you’ve got any one person who sits there and jumps out, but that’s what I like about what I’m seeing. There’s a lot of competition, There’s a lot of guys fighting. There’s a lot of guys doing good things.”

Kyle Ruchim is perhaps the team’s lone sure thing. As a do-everything junior in 2013, Ruchim was the team’s best hitter, with a .365 batting average and .974 OPS and moonlighted as a hard-throwing reliever.

This year he’ll abandon his pitching career to focus on swinging the bat, while playing defense wherever needed on the diamond, infield or outfield.

“(Stevens) has brought up both to me. I’m open to whatever,” Ruchim said. “(Hitting) is always where the focus is with me. I’m just trying to help out defensively wherever he puts me.”

A visibly bulked-up Ruchim, along with junior catcher Scott Heelan, will bolster an otherwise-unproven lineup, which might struggle after the graduation of three of its top five hitters.

The starting pitching situation could be steadier. Even with former star hurlers Zach Morton and Luke Farrell now in minor league baseball, Stevens seems confident in at least two of the three primary rotation slots.

Junior Brandon Magallones returns for a third go-around pitching on weekends, and sophomore second starter Matt Portland has his coach singing his praises.

“If I have to sit there and say one guy really impressed me the way his approach was this fall, it was Matt Portland,” Stevens said. “(He) has stepped up big-time. He made some huge jumps last summer. He came in with a ‘oh my gosh, don’t get in my way’ attitude in the fall, and that’s the way it’s been ever since.”

Pitching mid-week last season, Portland endured typical freshman ups and downs. In 28.1 innings, the left-hander posted a 4.76 ERA and 1.57 WHIP. Some afternoons he’d shut down the opponent, and others he’d be knocked around by unimpressive competition.

“Last year was a little bit frustrating for me,” Portland said. “I didn’t have the same success I was hoping for. Going into the summer I had a couple things I needed to work on, worked on those, felt like I got better and once I got back out for fall ball the coaches were happy with my progress.”

Stevens said sophomore Reed Mason will initially hold the third spot in the rotation and will start Sunday against USC, but freshman Joe Schindler will get opportunities going forward as well.

The opening series against the Trojans serves largely to get the Cats back on grass after a winter of practicing indoors. Ultimately, results this weekend matter less than how each player performs in his respective new role. NU’s lineup and rotation could change dramatically by conference play, and auditions begin now.

It remains to be seen whether Ruchim can repeat and improve upon last season, whether injury-plagued Heelan will stay healthy, whether Magallones is a true ace and Portland has really made a jump and whether the departed seniors will prove irreplaceable or the new infield brigade will thrive in their absence.

For a team with many unknowns, opening day presents excitement and opportunity up and down the roster.

As Stevens said, “I can’t wait to get started.”

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Twitter: @AlexPutt02