The five runners who crossed the plate in the first inning meant one thing. The miles left on his arm meant the opposite. As much as freshman pitcher Quinn Lavelle struggled in the first against Michigan State, he was going to stay in the game.
And that meant he had innings to kill, strategies to work on and the opportunity to manufacture another promising start.
Lavelle followed his uninspiring first with four scoreless innings and three swing-and-miss strikeouts in what became a satisfying outing. But when coach Spencer Allen pulled him at the start of the sixth inning, Northwestern still had just one more hit than the Spartans had runs, and the Wildcats (9-22, 1-12 Big Ten) ultimately lost on Friday at Miller Park 5-3 against Michigan State (12-21, 4-5).
“A big part of it was fastball location,” Lavelle said about his turnaround. “That first inning was pretty rough, but I got settled in there, balls were finding people. I was motivated to keep going.”
Lavelle has responded quickly all season to many different challenges Allen has thrown at the 18-year old. Lavelle leads the team with 47.2 innings pitched, and he’s just one of three players whose season total exceeds 25. Lavelle is already a mainstay in the rotation and again gave Allen the innings the team needed against Michigan State by mixing his fastball and his slider.
In his most recent start last Friday against No. 10 Indiana, though, Lavelle got the early hook. Anxious to earn the program’s first win against the Hoosiers in almost five years, Allen pulled Lavelle after the freshman conceded a pair of homers in the third inning.
But aside from that game, the freshman has shown his potential. His second Big Ten start was a complete game shutout, and he was the first Northwestern freshman to earn Big Ten pitcher of the week in six years.
NU’s 6-4 loss against Milwaukee on Tuesday was a “bullpen game,” where Allen relied on eight relievers to get through it. He used half their bullpen against the Panthers, so NU needed production out of its leading starter Friday, regardless of how the game began. After Lavelle marched towards the dugout after the first inning, Lavelle sat down next to assistant coach Josh Reynolds, who told him the adjustments he needed to make.
“He said this is a time you have to show you’re capable of settling down and putting zeros up on the board to get us back into this game,” Lavelle said.
Reliever Richard Fordon entered in the sixth and followed Lavelle’s lead, adding three scoreless innings. But he started warming up in the second, when Reynolds told Fordon he might be entering the game earlier than he expected. Up and down he went, loosening his arm then stopping to watch Lavelle’s fastball pound the strike zone. He said he had no idea when Lavelle’s night would end and his would start.
As he stopped and stared, Fordon noticed how effectively Lavelle’s fastball was working and determined that would be the pitch he’d lean on. He leaned on it and allowed just one hit in three innings.
“Coming out of the bullpen, that (nod) could come in the seventh or whenever,” Fordon said. “As a competitor, you never want to come out of the game, and I always feel that way.”
As the Cats continue to struggle in conference play, Lavelle said the opportunity to turn a shaky outing into a solid one motivated him. His outing against the Hoosiers and the first inning against the Spartans was one story. This time he got to keep going.
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