Baseball: With Kyle Ruchim back, Wildcats enjoying versatility up the middle

Alex Putterman, Web Editor

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Last season, Northwestern had positional versatility out of necessity.

As player after player became injured and several key backups failed to perform, coach Paul Stevens was forced to shift his starters around the diamond to plug holes.

This season, the Wildcats have positional versatility by design.

Several of the team’s best players play multiple positions, giving Stevens endless permutations to consider as he fills out his lineup card.

Last season, the up-the-middle positions (catcher, second base, shortstop, centerfield) posed problems for the Cats. Each of those spots either featured a player out of position or shifted among various players who couldn’t quite handle the job.

This season, those same positions are a little more shored up.

“We solidified up the middle,” Stevens said. “Whether it’s centerfield, shortstop or second base — a lot of spots we had issues with (last year).”

The foremost difference is the presence of Kyle Ruchim, who returned from suspension in time for the 1-6 Cats’ first win of the season Sunday against Villanova. Ruchim has played shortstop, second base and centerfield at NU, and he started in center on Sunday.

He said he didn’t find out he would be in centerfield, rather than the infield, until right before the game. A shortstop in high school, Ruchim began playing the outfield as a freshman and has played there on and off since.

“Maybe when I came into college I thought I would be at one spot or another,” Ruchim said this week. “But as I’ve grown as a player here, I’ve seen the value in being able to play multiple positions.”

Stevens said that will be the senior’s position in the near future, beginning with this weekend’s three-game series with Southeastern Louisiana.

“There may be some people that are faster, but (I like) the way he reads the ball. And he did a really good job of that on Sunday,” Stevens said of Ruchim. “I’m just trying to find a stabilizing scenario with someone that covers the gaps, and I think Ruchim is the guy that can do that.”

Senior Cody Stevens, who has primarily played the middle infield during his time at NU, got a tryout in centerfield but appears likely to settle in at second base.

He said last season’s lineup tumult could benefit the Cats this year, with more players comfortable at more spots.

“By the end of the year we had so many different guys playing positions they weren’t used to,” Stevens said. “That was kind of fun, just get your feet wet.”

After filling in admirably at shortstop last season while Ruchim was injured, Stevens shifts back to his natural position to make room for redshirt freshman Grant Peikert, who has impressed Paul Stevens with his defense.

And the Cats’ up-the-middle defense is anchored by senior catcher Scott Heelan, who last season was forced to play second base for the first time since high school. Heelan’s return to catching changes that back to a position of strength for NU.

Paul Stevens said he hopes to find an optimal lineup and stick to it. For now, that means Heelan behind the plate, Peikert at shortstop, Cody Stevens at second base and Ruchim in centerfield.

Next week, who knows?

Twitter: @AlexPutt02