Baseball: Northwestern must overcome travel, Penn State to earn first conference series win


Daily file photo by Alison Albelda

Jack Dunn follows through on his swing. Dunn said the Wildcats will try to find positives in their long trek to Penn State.

Ryan Wangman, Copy Chief

Before Northwestern plays fellow Big Ten bottom feeder Penn State this weekend in its best opportunity all season to capture its first conference series win, the team faces a simpler but no less arduous challenge: getting to State College, Pennsylvania.

The roughly 600-mile journey is the longest distance the Wildcats will travel by land this season, edging out a trip of about 550 miles to Kansas earlier in the year. Two destinations that were farther away — College Park, Maryland, and Austin, Texas — each earned the team the luxury of a plane flight.

Junior shortstop Jack Dunn, who took part in the approximately 10-hour voyage to Penn State last year, said the long bus ride will serve as good study time for a lot of players on the team who have midterms coming up. He added that it also gives downtime for players to get “much-needed sleep” and prepare for the weekend.

“There’s positives to it,” Dunn said. “We’re stuck here so we might as well make something good out of it.”

Upon arriving, the Cats (10-24, 1-14 Big Ten) will sharpen their claws for a feline fight with the Nittany Lions (9-25, 1-14) to avoid the dishonorable distinction of last place in the conference. Luckily, NU has the good fortune of facing the conference’s worst lineup in terms of batting average and on-base percentage, as well as its worst pitching staff by ERA.

The Cats will look to mirror last season’s performance at Lubrano Park, where they took on a similarly floundering Penn State team and captured two of three games in the series. Dunn had a solid performance in the sequence, gathering two hits and walking four times, scoring 5 runs.

For sophomore reliever Josh Levy, that weekend was particularly fun because the Saturday game of the series aligned with Penn State’s spring football game, so there were fans everywhere. Levy said the big park and good crowd made it a cool atmosphere to be in, and that the team expects to win three games this weekend, like they have all season.

“Coach always says you need to be ready for a big crowd like that,” Levy said. “All it takes is a little more mental preparation for it, but I think we’re all really excited for that weekend opportunity to play.”

Levy has struggled in relief on the season to the tune of a 5.40 ERA, but has come into his own as of late, blanking the competition in his last four outings while only allowing two hits. Levy held Illinois-Chicago’s bats in check Tuesday to combine with six other NU pitchers for a mid-week shutout against the team’s crosstown rival.

Coach Spencer Allen said he hoped the team could use the momentum from their midweek win to come together on the road and execute in clutch situations — like they failed to do in a tight series loss to Maryland.

“You kind of have two teams that are fighting it a little bit,” Allen said. “Hopefully we can come out and continue to build on some of these (wins) and ultimately win a series.”

Peter Warren contributed reporting.

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