The Daily Northwestern

Baseball: Northwestern hopes to translate changes into breakout year

Matt Hopfner readies for a pitch. The senior will look to help Northwestern improve in 2017.

Matt Hopfner readies for a pitch. The senior will look to help Northwestern improve in 2017.

Daily file photo by Lauren Duquette

Daily file photo by Lauren Duquette

Matt Hopfner readies for a pitch. The senior will look to help Northwestern improve in 2017.

Ben Pope, Reporter

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While Northwestern limped to a dismal 15-39 record in coach Spencer Allen’s first season in the dugout last spring, Matt Hopfner tore up opposing pitchers to the tune of a .355 batting average.

This year, the senior right fielder with the second-highest batting average among returning Big Ten hitters feels like the rest of the team is ready to match his success.

“One year under the belt with the new coaching staff, we know what to expect,” Hopfner said. “Everything is a lot more efficient right now in the way we practice. And obviously the addition of the 10 new guys, which I think will have an impact right away, blended with some of the older guys who have experience — it’s a pretty good chemistry we have this year.”

That group of 10 newcomers includes freshmen infielders Alex Erro, a Florida state semifinalist in high school last year, and Charlie Maxwell, a product of Evanston Township High School, who together will fill a void of left-handed hitters in the rotation.

They aren’t the only changes to the squad. Sophomore Willie Bourbon, who started 52 games at second base as a freshman, is shifting over to replace the graduated Zach Jones at first base, which Allen said will give the Wildcats’ defensive lineup more athleticism. Either Erro or Maxwell will be expected to fill the vacancy at second.

With last year’s regular Friday starter Reed Mason also gone, pitching coach Josh Reynolds is looking to junior Tommy Bordignon, who made 17 of his 20 appearances in relief last season, to successfully transition into the No. 1 starter role.

“I think we’re going to give him the ball and say, ‘Let’s go, Tommy, let’s see what you can do,’” Reynolds said. “He’s motivated, he’s a different guy than last year, and … he’s starting to figure out this is what pitchers have to do, this is what I have to work on.”

Bordignon said starting will better fit his skill set than coming out of the bullpen did.

“One of my strong suits has been being able to maintain my velocity through multiple innings,” he said. “The biggest thing for me has been keeping my strength throughout the later innings. (I’ll) hopefully be able to go deeper in ball games this year.”

Senior Joe Schindler, who missed most of 2016 due to suspension, and freshman Hank Christie, who Reynolds said has stood out most among the five freshmen arms, will also be tasked with improving a pitching staff that has nowhere to go but up. NU ranked dead last in the Big Ten last season in both team ERA and total strikeouts.

“We didn’t hide from the fact that we did struggle last year,” Allen said. “You start throwing losses together, and we weren’t able to just stop it and play the game that day.”

The second-year manager is making a point to emphasize a one-day-at-a-time mentality this season.

The Cats may need it just to survive a challenging 15-game stretch to start the season — 14 of those games are outside of Evanston, and 11 are in the Pacific time zone, including a three-game series at Arizona State this weekend. Reynolds said he’s hoping to use the surplus of innings to get freshmen experience without “burying them” in pressure situations.

And with the new personnel, the wins might not be too far off.

“Yes, they’re coming this year,” Hopfner said with a smile.

Twitter: @benpope111