Wednesday, February 18, 2009

2009 Preview: Northwestern

Northwestern Wildcats
Head Coach: Paul Stevens
2008 Record: 21-28 (14-18, seventh in the Big Ten)

At The Plate: Second team All-Big Ten member Jake Goebbert is the engine of the Wildcats’ offensive attack. Goebbert, who started in all 49 NU games, hit .353 with a school record 22 doubles in 2008. Goebbert also had a .665 slugging percentage (4th best in the Big Ten), .458 on-base percentage (8th) and belted ten homers (T-6). The junior is expected to make the move from first base to centerfield this season.

Sophomore Chris Lashmet started in 47 games last year and hit .299 with four homers and 38 RBI. Lashmet will hold down third base again in 2009. Senior Tommy Finn (.250) returns at shortstop. Chad Noble started 39 games and will be the Wildcats’ catcher. Tony Vercelli (.256) finds himself moving from behind the plate to right field this season. A pair of freshmen complete NU’s infield.

Paul Snider (1B) and Trevor Stevens (2B) appear to have secured starting roles in their initial season in Evanston. Leftfield also belongs to a first-year player. Freshman Quentin Williams, who is also on scholarship to play football at NU, will begin the year in the starting lineup.

Look for another frosh, Zach Morton, to open the year at designated hitter. He might also get see some time in the Wildcats’ outfield. Jim Grieco and Brant Cavagnaro will also hope to get into the NU outfield.

On The Mound: Lefty Eric Jokisch claimed the Big Ten Freshman Pitcher of the Year in 2008. Jokisch won eight games (a school record for a first-year player) and was 7-1 versus Big Ten opposition. His 4.30 ERA was tenth best in the conference. He steps into the Friday starter’s role.

RHP Cole Livermore returns after missing all of 2008 with an injury. Livermore had a solid freshman season of his own two years ago and will be counted on as the Wildcats‘ number two starter. Freshman Morton looks to have the inside track to land the final weekend spot in the rotation. Two more lefthanders are vying for starting roles, juniors Joe Muraski (4-6) and David Jensen (1-6).

Freshman Francis Brooke and Williams, who like Morton will be called up to do double-duty, look to be important arms out of the ’Cats bullpen. The closer will be senior Matt Havey. Havey posted a 3-2 mark with six saves in ‘08.

The Schedule: Three at Kansas. Three at Illinois-Chicago. Four at New Mexico. Two at Kansas State. Consecutively. Not a neutral site game in the bunch. It’s not like playing in the SEC, but that’s not a cakewalk. Oh, they've got the Big East/Big Ten Challenge thing, too. The non-conference slate is going to be a challenge.

The conference season opens at home against Purdue. Iowa, Illinois and Michigan follow the Boilermakers into Evanston. The ‘Cats travel to MSU, Minnesota, Ohio State and Indiana.

Bottom Line: This could be a fun group of ‘Cats to watch. Jokisch looks to build on a good freshman campaign and Livermore’s return could really help the rotation. Goebbert can swing the bat with anyone in the conference. Lashmet looked like a hitter in his first season. Then, there are all those freshmen. Williams and Morton could pop-up anywhere on the field -- including the mound -- or the lineup. (Which is part of the charm of college baseball, isn’t it?) Who knows what to expect from the first-year rightside of the infield?

Will the potential for entertainment translate into wins? It always difficult to pencil a team into the conference tournament when they have such a heavy reliance on freshmen and/or untested players. NU is no different. In the perfect storm scenario, the ‘Cats do get into the top six. Anything less and NU may be interesting to follow, but not poised for the post-season until 2010.