Pope: Win over UIC shows Northwestern baseball’s pitching woes are fixable

Ben Pope, Sports Editor


Happy and relieved to finally pick up a win, but fully aware that his Northwestern squad remains 10-24 on the season, sophomore relief pitcher Josh Levy sent a clear message Tuesday about what the Wildcats’ maligned bullpen needs to improve.


Two weeks ago in Notre Dame, the NU coaching staff went in with a predesigned plan to “bullpen” the game — use a series of pitchers, inning by inning, all game long — and a cast of seven men delivered a 2-0 shutout. Tuesday, following seven straight losses since that trip to South Bend, the Cats followed the same strategy and blanked a solid Illinois-Chicago team 1-0.

“I think we are all asking ourselves why we don’t do that on the weekends,” Levy said.

NU’s pitching struggles are impossible to hide, no matter where you look. From a 5.59 ERA, to a .279 opponent batting average, to the fact they’ve both thrown more wild pitches and hit more batters than played games, the statistics are embarrassing across the board.

But Tuesday’s refreshingly clean win reveals there is a way to salvage, or at least improve, this situation.

The Cats’ rotation — no matter how strongly head coach Spencer Allen and pitching coach Josh Reynolds feel about certain favorites — must be rethought.

The likes of Levy, who has now gone scoreless in four straight appearances; junior Tyler Lass, who save for two disasters against Texas and Indiana has been stellar (and underrated) all season long; and freshman Ryan Bader, who started Tuesday and improved his ERA since March 18 to a spectacular 1.99 in 18.1 innings of work, deserve far more innings than they’ve been getting.

Senior Tommy Bordignon, whose 2.59 season-long ERA is better than any other pitcher by over a full run, should immediately replace fellow senior Richard Fordon as the team’s primary closer. Although Bordignon loaded the bases in Tuesday’s ninth inning, he again showed his consistent skill at escaping jams — something Fordon, who has recorded a ghastly 9.53 ERA over his last seven outings and personally been tagged with the loss in five of those, has decidedly not demonstrated.

NU’s overall pitcher deployment strategy warrants a reevaluation, as well.

Allen has “bullpenned” midweek games regularly over the past few years, with mixed results. And yes, admittedly, three of the Cats’ five lowest ERAs this season are held by their three long-distance starters: freshmen Jack Pagliarini and Quinn Lavelle and sophomore Hank Christie.

On the other hand, though, Lavelle for one has regressed in recent weeks, and a whopping 13 of the 21 total runs NU allowed during last week’s four-game homestand came in first innings.

A more patient, drawn-out and tactical approach to pitcher usage could do the team some good, letting the relievers know they’re trusted to collectively manage entire games and reducing the pressure that comes with only ever playing in tight late-game situations.

Certainly, no relatively small strategic decisions like these will transform this team: the obvious talent and performance shortcomings are still ever-present and obvious. Considering the relative weakness of the Cats’ upcoming schedule — a three-game series this weekend at 8-25 Penn State, then a pair of non-conference games against 7-30 Chicago State and 16-17 Western Michigan — and how desperately they need to build confidence, however, learning from Tuesday’s breath of fresh air cannot possibly be a bad idea.

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Twitter: @benpope111