Baseball: Four reasons why Northwestern will turn its season around

Alex Putterman, Web Editor

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“I’m not thrilled with the record,” Northwestern coach Paul Stevens said Tuesday. “I really am not.”

With the Wildcats sporting a 4-13 mark as non-conference play winds down, 2015 appears on the surface to be more of the same for a program that hasn’t finished a season above .500 since 2000.

And while that streak is likely to continue, this season has been about more than just wins and losses. Here are four reasons to believe NU is better than 4-13 suggests.

1. Life isn’t easy on the road

Thanks to Midwestern weather, NU always begins its season with a hefty chunk of road games. This year is even more extreme, with the athletic department announcing Wednesday that the renovations to Rocky Miller Park will force the team to play its first four scheduled home games away from Evanston.

Beyond the obvious disadvantages of playing on unfamiliar fields in front of enemy crowds, traveling creates a fair amount of inconveniences. Leaving home early in the morning for a game that same night, staying up late because there’s limited time to study and eating airport food before playing, for example.

“There are a lot of things that people don’t think about when you’re traveling that make things tough,” senior infielder Cody Stevens said this week. “The biggest thing is not sleeping in your own bed, beds changing every weekend, not being in an area that you’re used to. Your diet kind of gets thrown depending where you are, so that’s tough to keep.”

Cody Stevens also indicated umpires representing opposing teams’ conferences can sometimes harbor bias toward the team they’re familiar with. Paul Stevens said he has been seriously bothered by umpiring in only one game this year. Starting catcher Scott Heelan was suspended two games after arguing balls and strikes following the first game of the season, a 2-1 loss to Oregon State.

With the away-from-home stretch far from over, Stevens said eight players will fly to Las Vegas this weekend later than the rest of the team so they can take finals on campus.

Once games return to Evanston, the Cats won’t have to worry about the rigors of the road.

2. Close losses can’t last forever

The Cats are 3-8 in games decided by one or 2 runs, meaning they are playing teams close but struggling to pull through in the end.

“We’re just one pitch away or one swing away from winning some of these games,” Cody Stevens said, “which is unfortunate.”

Some of that could have to do with a young, inexperienced bullpen, but much of it is likely bad luck. In the long-term, research shows, close games roughly even out, meaning NU should have an extra win or two already with average luck.

Because the Cats have played better than their record suggests according to run differential, it’s fair to assume they’ll perform closer to .500 from here on, even if their production remains generally the same.

Paul Stevens acknowledges that theory but says NU has to be accountable for the close losses. The Cats wouldn’t have lost, he reasons, if they had simply scored more earlier in the game.

“We’ve coughed them up,” he said. “And the way that you don’t cough them up is you don’t give somebody a chance to come back in the eighth or ninth inning. The way you do that is you get those big hits earlier.”

 3. The Big Ten is a new season

In the end, NU’s goal is to finish in the top of eight of the conference and therefore earn a spot in the Big Ten Tournament. Since qualification depends entirely on conference standings, this poor start doesn’t mean too much.

“We’ve had a lot of hardships that we’ve really worked through, and now it’s just getting to the Big Ten season,” Cody Stevens said. “Hopefully we can put it all together.”

Last year NU hit its stride once conference play started, improving from the awful start and finishing a less-than-embarrassing 7-16 Big Ten record. Once conference play comes, the team’s record essentially starts anew.

“The second season starts (March 27) at Minnesota,” Paul Stevens said. “And that’s going to be the interesting part.”

4. The Cats have the talent

On paper, this team is much better than last year’s squad, which finished 19-33 after a 3-14 start.

Senior Kyle Ruchim is back from injury, the starting pitchers are all a year older and the lineup has fewer holes. Stevens has cycled 11 or 12 players into the nine starting spots and said he has settled into a comfortable playing time rotation. No position on the diamond presents a glaring weakness.

Various players have improved from a year ago, including left-handed starter junior Matt Portland, whom Stevens has rather optimistically compared to Randy Johnson. After throwing inconsistently during the 2014 season before being shut down due to injury, Portland has been arguably the Cats’ best pitcher this year. His 3.26 ERA, .268 batting average against and 30.1 innings pitched all lead NU.

“Four of my five starts I’ve given my team a good chance to win the ball game,” he said Tuesday.

Portland is the most notable Cats player to take a positive step, but others, like sophomore outfielder Joe Hoscheit and senior outfielder Reid Hunter have had improved years as well. And numerous young players could break out at any time.

With senior studs Ruchim and Heelan hitting as they’re expected to, NU has the talent to be a competitive Big Ten team.

“Somebody said this to me yesterday, they said ‘Wow, I don’t think your record really signifies who you guys are right now,’” Paul Stevens said. “Well, thank you very much for that, but it’s still our record, and we still have to own up to it.”

Twitter: @AlexPutt02