Baseball: Wildcats experiment with new positions, hoping to break extended skid

Alex Putterman, Sports Editor

When Scott Heelan was asked to play second base, he didn’t even have a proper glove.

The redshirt junior catcher hadn’t played second base since high school and had brought only his catcher’s mitt to school. But once the season started, Northwestern second basemen failed to perform one-by-one, and eventually Heelan was pressed into service there.

So with an infielder’s glove borrowed from teammate Cody Stevens, Heelan took his new position in the third inning of Saturday’s game against Penn State. Naturally, six of the next seven balls the Nittany Lions put in play were ground balls to second base.

But Heelan converted each opportunity as if he’d been playing there all his life.

“It’s fun,” Heelan said regarding playing second base. “I’ve just got to trust my natural athleticism and just hope I don’t mess up and hope I don’t make the rest of the team look too bad.”

Stevens said Wednesday that Heelan and senior Nick Linne will get the majority of the time at second during conference play, even though neither entered the season even on the depth chart at the position.

It’s been that kind of year for the 4-19 Wildcats, who have dropped 15 of their last 17 games. With a young roster of unproven players in key roles, coach Paul Stevens has shuffled his lineup in hopes of eking out every last bit of production.

That has meant a half-dozen different second baseman, three or four third basemen, erratic platoons in left and center field and mild chaos on the mound.

Senior Dan Tyson has been part of that tumult. After primarily starting as a freshman, the right-hander gradually shifted toward the bullpen and last year made all 11 of his appearances in relief.

But sensing a potential lack of depth in the starting rotation, Stevens began to stretch Tyson out, and when injuries wracked the staff, the senior was converted back to a starter.

The experiment has yielded mixed results. Tyson contributed eight strong innings in a March 9 win over South Florida, then struggled against LIU Brooklyn before bouncing back with a solid outing against Eastern Michigan.

Overall, in his three starts, Tyson has allowed 10 earned runs in 15 innings, for a 6.00 ERA.

Effective relievers often struggle transitioning to a starting role because, unlike throwing one inning at a time in relief, starting requires a pitcher to conserve his arm throughout the game.

“It’s definitely a different mentality you have to take out to the mound,” Tyson said Wednesday. “Relieving is a short-term burst, and starting is a longer-term thing. I just have to view it as a bunch of relief appearances.”

Going forward, Stevens’ hand is forced by the underwhelming performance of the trio that entered the year as NU’s top starters. Junior Brandon Magallones and sophomores Matt Portland and Reed Mason have combined for a 5.14 ERA over 103.1 innings.

The Cats play Illinois this weekend, hosting a three-game set at Rocky Miller Park. Stevens would not indicate who will start the second and third games (after Magallones in the first) but said Tyson is “a possibility.”

Stevens said he’s probably done tinkering with his lineup and the alignments he’s used recently are likely to become permanent.

In other words, it’s time for Scott Heelan to get his own glove.

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Twitter: @AlexPutt02