Baseball: Friar prepares for crucial first Big Ten start

Jesse Kramer, Reporter

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In more than three seasons at Northwestern, senior pitcher Nick Friar has never started a Big Ten game. But that will change Friday, when Friar takes the hill in the first game of a weekend series against Michigan.

“I’m thankful I’m getting the opportunity,” Friar said. “It’s all I ever asked for.”

NU (12-29, 4-13 Big Ten) will need all of its arms ready as it tries to make one last push for the Big Ten Tournament. The top eight teams qualify, and though the Wildcats sit in last place, they are only three games out of eighth-place Ohio State. And they will get a shot at the Buckeyes in two weeks.

But first NU must face Michigan (20-24-1, 9-9), a middle-of-the-pack club that has won its last two conference road series.  If the Cats become the Wolverines’ next victim, their conference tournament hopes could be finished.

Friar said there is a sense of urgency, but the key to success is not to look too far ahead.

“We need to win these last six (Big Ten games) to have a prayer,” he said. “There is some extra urgency, but I think it’s important we just take it one pitch at a time. I know it’s kind of a cliche. But when we do that, that’s when we win. Hopefully we can beat these guys because they’re both very beatable. Hopefully we can take it to these guys one pitch at a time, and we’ll be fine.”

Friar has started a pair of non-conference games this season and appeared 16 times out of the bullpen. 

Coach Paul Stevens said one reason he gave Friar the start is the injuries the pitching staff has suffered, but he also likes what he has seen recently from the senior out of the bullpen.

In two appearances at Michigan State last weekend, Friar tossed 3 2/3 innings, mowing down seven Spartans while allowing two hits and one earned run. 

“What if he can pick up that kind of magic that I saw last weekend?” Stevens said. “With the way our pitching staff is pretty beat up, Friar is going to give us the best opportunity.”

Like the pitchers, the batting lineup has also been crippled by the injury bug. The Cats suffered another blow against Michigan State with sophomore first baseman Zach Jones getting hurt. Stevens said he “very seriously” doubts Jones or senior Jack Livingston, who was a pitcher and designated hitter before being injured in mid-April, will play against Michigan.

NU’s bats struggled in the team’s last four games. The Cats mustered only 6 runs in their three-game series at Michigan State. Without Jones, who is second on the team with a .315 batting average, they were then shut out Wednesday at Northern Illinois. 

Offensively and defensively, NU peaked two weeks ago when it won a pair of mid-week games against Chicago State and then took the first two of three games against Nebraska, who was the hottest team in the Big Ten at the time. In that four game stretch, the Cats outscored the Cougars and Cornhuskers 15-6 over that four-game stretch. 

Stevens stressed confidence as NU’s key to get back to performing that way.

“I think it’s just a matter of feeling it,” Stevens said. “There’s a thing when you have a confidence that when you swing the bat you know the barrel is going to find the ball, or when you walk to the mound and you believe the guy at the plate is not going to be able to hit you.”

Even though it’s the biggest start of his career, Friar has some of the confidence Stevens talked about.

“I’ve shown that I have a little longevity in my arm,” Friar said. “I think I can do Coach right and do right by the team. Hopefully I can deliver.”

Twitter: @Jesse_Kramer