Baseball: Price: After getting swept in back-to-back weeks, another Northwestern series win may never come


Daily file photo by Ziye Wang

Senior outfielder Luke Tanner gets up after diving back to first. Tanner picked up two hits over the weekend against Indiana.

Lawrence Price, Sports Editor

Northwestern’s historically dismal 2-17 start to the season before Big Ten play can be credited to many excusable factors.

A new head coach, the majority of starters leaving, two long-tenured coaches stepping down unexpectedly — it takes time for a team to mesh and find a rhythm. And it looked like the Wildcats (6-28, 3-9 Big Ten) found that two weeks ago, as coach Jim Foster and his team strung together the most momentum they’ve had all season.

NU had finally won its first series of the year, taking two of three against in-state rival Illinois at Miller Park in the Cats’ first home series of the 2023 campaign. Following the series-clinching win on April 9, Foster said the team was starting to figure out its identity and the jive of its heartbeat.

Two weeks later, though, NU has yet to find the win column again versus Big Ten opponents, losing most recently to Rutgers (24-16, 7-5 Big Ten) on Sunday, 5-1. The loss capped off the Scarlet Knights’ series sweep, while the Cats have dropped its last six conference contests, losing three outings each to Nebraska last weekend and Rutgers this go-around.

Foster said he felt NU played well this weekend but still has a lot to do — emphasized by the three straight losses. Although progress has been made since the season opener, there may not be enough time for the Cats to turn it around, with much more work needed and most teams already in mid-to-late season form. Specifically, it means winning another Big Ten series.

Let’s break it down using the Rutgers series — the epitome of the program’s conference struggles both as of late and throughout the season.

NU’s Friday opener was ugly. Besides junior infielder Tony Livermore’s RBI single in the fifth inning, NU’s offense stalled, producing just four other hits and zero runs over nine innings and losing 7-1. Holding the second-worst batting average in the conference (.249), the Cats’ struggles at the plate stuck out like a sore thumb.

Even though the bats woke up Saturday, putting seven runs across the plate, pitching woes took the crown that time by giving up 11 runs — providing a reminder on why NU has the conference’s highest ERA (9.31). Rutgers’ ability to capitalize and drive in runners in scoring position, a point of emphasis that separates good and great teams, was apparent throughout this series.

The Cats weren’t able to find this same success, especially in Sunday’s finale. While Rutgers continually found a way to score, NU was damned by groundout double plays, strikeouts and other paths toward an out.

Additionally, the Cats haven’t put themselves in a position of power early, either. In five of the last six conference matchups, NU hasn’t scored first once. As a result of playing from behind, the Cats were outscored 23-9 in the Rutgers series and 35-10 versus Nebraska.

Of course, any team can come from behind and win, including NU. But with a struggling offense, an untrustworthy pitching staff and a deeply talented Big Ten, the Cats’ possibility of doing so is low.

Now, it’s difficult to harp on a program clearly rebuilding and facing roster turnover from last season, setting up tons of inconsistency. Coach Foster noted it takes multiple recruiting cycles to finally see the product he might have envisioned years before.

That brings me to my point: With many players currently on the roster that were selected by a past regime with different focuses and ideals, the brand of baseball the new coaching staff wants may materialize early on. And bouncing around three head coaches in three years doesn’t help.

With different lineups in each contest, we’ve already seen Foster mix and match to try and find the right combination. Over the past three series, he has placed Livermore, freshman infielder/outfielder Owen McElfatrick and graduate outfielder Griffin Arnone in the leadoff spot — underscoring how NU still hasn’t found its groove.

NU has 16 contests left in the season, and of course, a surge to walk off into the sunset would be perfect. However, with so many questions still to be answered and holes in various parts of their game, the Cats’ conference losing streak is coming at the worst possible time.

All four of NU’s remaining Big Ten opponents hold a top-five conference record — Michigan State at No. 5, Indiana at No. 1, Michigan at No. 3 and Iowa at No. 4 — making the chances of a late-season push even less likely.

With the middle-of-the-pack opponents already out the way and the heavy hitters lining up, it may mean NU’s next series win will come in 2024.

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