Baseball: Underclassmen starters Portland, Mason and Schindler learning on the job

Alex Putterman, Assistant Sports Editor

There’s no question Northwestern’s starting pitchers have a lot to learn.

With presumptive ace Brandon Magallones sidelined indefinitely with a high-grade stress fracture in his shin, the Wildcats will rely on a freshman and two sophomores as their weekend starters for at least the next few series.

For the youthful trio, results haven’t been great. Freshman Joe Schindler and sophomores Reed Mason and Matt Portland have combined to allow 33 earned runs in 44 innings pitched this season, for a 6.75 ERA.

Those early returns won’t stop NU from continuing to throw them into the fire, partly because of a lack of options but also to promote long-term development.

“You only have them for four years anyway,” said Tim Stoddard, NU’s assistant coach and a former Major League reliever. “They’re always in a learning process as they go through their college careers. The tough part is, with losing Mags, we now have three guys that are still building all the experience and the knowledge and how to pitch.”

For Schindler — who has a team-worst 8.40 ERA — the adjustment to college has been admittedly difficult. Against Tennessee Tech last weekend, the freshman said he was throwing hard and over the plate but was knocked around anyway.

“In high school I could dominate with my velocity, but now it’s about learning how to pitch to the corners of the plate,” Schindler said. “My velocity will come as I get older. Right now I throw probably 87 or so, which was hard in high school, but now it’s average at best. … What I need to focus on is location.”

Mason feels Schindler’s pain. As a freshman last season, the light-throwing left-hander allowed his share of hits but limited his walks and finished with a 2.92 ERA.

He did so with his brain as much as his arm.

“I’m not the type of overpowering pitcher that commands respect off that bat,” Mason said this week. ”I’ve always taken pride in being able to prove people wrong. Through growing up and through high school, I didn’t have the best stuff; I still don’t have the best stuff in college baseball. But I take pride in my mental game, in being able to bounce back from rough outings and being able to control the image and just being able to be a complete pitcher.”

Now Mason is transitioning from starting against lesser competition during the week and coming out of the bullpen on weekends to a full-fledged weekend starter. That means facing top hitters two or three times in an afternoon.

The increase in competition will necessitate an adjustment in approach. Without high velocity, Mason relies on changing speeds, and last year that meant throwing a lot of curveballs. But the lefty knows good hitters will pick up a big-breaking curveball as the game goes and is developing his change-up as an alternative off-speed pitch.

Of course, the easiest way to improve is through on-the-job experience, and there will be no shortage of that for the Cats’ youthful trio. Schindler, Portland and Mason will all start this weekend at South Florida, where the Cats hope to end a four-game losing streak and tack a few wins onto their 2-8 record.

“We can do things on the side, this and that,” Stoddard says, “But right now it’s getting in games and pitching and going through it.”

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