Baseball: What to Watch For: Northwestern strives for success in first Big Ten home series against Illinois


Daily file photo by Mika Ellison

Junior infielder Vincent Bianchina tracks infield pop up. For NU to achieve a home series win over Illinois, the team will need to limit its defensive miscues.

Aayushya Agarwal, Senior Staffer

Northwestern has had a tough time so far this season. After dropping their first Big Ten series against Purdue last weekend, the Wildcats played a lone contest at Notre Dame Tuesday, losing 12-0 in typical fashion.

With the Big Ten schedule in full swing, the Cats (3-20, 1-2 Big Ten) will need to string together multiple series wins to catch up with other teams in the conference. This weekend, NU will host in-state rival Illinois (12-13, 2-4 Big Ten) for a three-game series at Rocky and Berenice Miller Park.

Home wins will be crucial for a quick turnaround, as the Cats went 13-8 at home last season and have already recorded one of their three victories in Evanston this year.

Below are three storylines that will be key as NU takes on Illinois:

1. Can NU pitchers do a better job of finding the strike zone?

The Cats’ inability to limit opposing teams’ offenses has caused many of the team’s struggles this season. NU surrendered 12 runs on 14 hits to Notre Dame on Tuesday. Facing an Illinois offense that put up 34 runs over its past four games, the Cats need a quick reversal to ensure they do not fall behind too early in the coming contests.

NU’s pitching staff will need to clean up its balls-to-strikes ratio to succeed this weekend. In this week’s loss to Notre Dame, Cats pitchers combined to give up eight free bases on five walks and three hit by pitches. The free passes made it difficult for NU’s junior right-hander David Utagawa to escape the first two innings scoreless. With a pitch count of 44, Utagawa’s start was cut short as he exited the contest after pitching just two innings. The resulting early bullpen appearances made it difficult for the Cats to build momentum on the mound.

Exacerbating the pitching problem, Illinois hitters have some of the best eyes in all of the Big Ten. In their most recent game against Illinois State, the Fighting Illini drew nine walks and were hit by pitches five times. With frigid gametime temperatures expected Friday, NU pitchers will need to command the strike zone and keep their team within striking distance throughout.

2. Will the Cats have a cleaner performance on the field?

Defensive struggles plagued the Cats this past week. In its series loss to Purdue, NU committed a total of six errors. In Tuesday’s contest against Notre Dame, the team committed two more. These defensive miscues make it more difficult for pitchers to escape innings without surrendering a run.

NU’s defensive struggles may have cost the Cats last weekend’s series. Entering the bottom-half of the sixth inning in the series opener, the Cats held a 2-1 advantage. However, that lead narrowed after NU’s defense committed two errors in the bottom half of the seventh inning and by the end of the frame, the team trailed 3-2.

The Cats’ defense will need to reduce the number of errors to win this weekend.

3. Can NU’s hitters — besides Arnone — find their source of power?

Against Purdue, Cats hitters struggled to hit for power outside graduate student outfielder Griffin Arnone, who homered in each of NU’s three games. The rest of the offense combined to drive in just five runs in the team’s two losses. No one other than Arnone has hit a long ball since the Cats win over Northern Illinois in late March. During that contest, NU’s offense exploded and scored 15 total runs.

It’s safe to say, NU’s offense struggles when Arnone cannot get it going. When the graduate student went hitless in this past Tuesday’s scoreless defeat to Notre Dame, the rest of the offense followed suit and combined for just six total hits.

With or without Arnone’s offensive prowess, the Cats need to string together more than a few hits to keep up with Illinois’ rampant offense this weekend.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @aayushyagarwal7

Related Stories:
Baseball: Northwestern drops opening Big Ten series to Purdue NU loses first Big Ten series of season to Purdue
Baseball: What to Watch For: Northwestern travels south to take on Purdue in first Big Ten series of the season Northwestern baseball begins Big Ten play with series against Purdue
Baseball: Northwestern snaps five-game losing streak, secures second win of the season beating NIU 15-11 Northwestern bags second win of the season, defeating NIU 15-11