In this season’s first installation of Crimson Query, our award-winning Q&A series, we talk with Josh Burton of Inside NU about Indiana baseball’s first Big Ten opponent, the Northwestern Wildcats.
Crimson Quarry: Northwestern got off to a rough start (0-7), but seem to have righted the ship a bit with five wins in their last 11 games (now 12 games, after Northwestern’s loss to UIC after the question was asked). Have the Wildcats been doing anything better, really, or is it more a product of an easier stretch in the schedule?
Josh Burton: I would say it's a product of both the schedule and just the bats waking up after a weak start. The team really struggled to string together hits early on, especially with runners in scoring position, and without a ton of home run power, it couldn't get runs across. The last few nonconference series have been against lesser teams which has definitely helped kickstart the offense to a degree.
CQ: Indiana’s offense has been explosive as of late, scoring 45 runs in their last seven games (through the end of the Hawaii series). How will Northwestern’s battery match up and is it equipped to cool off the Hoosiers’ bats?
Josh: That could be a problem for Northwestern. The Wildcats have a very young starting rotation -- freshmen Hank Christie and Matt Gannon have been mainstays so far -- which has led to a fairly taxed bullpen. Some guys, like Josh Levy and Josh Davis, have impressed out of the 'pen but it gets ugly a few guys down the depth chart. So, Indiana might put up a lot of runs this weekend.
CQ: Indiana’s pitching has been a whole other story, though. They have gotten a few good starts, but mostly have just gotten by. And the bullpen has a couple huge letdowns to lose games that were in the bag. If Indiana finds itself in a fight late with Northwestern, who are the guys that should cause Hoosier fans some concern at the plate?
Josh: Outfielder Matt Hopfner and second baseman Alex Erro have been the most reliable Northwestern position players so far this season, and Erro is riding a 16-game hitting streak. They account for three of the Wildcats' four total home runs and seem to always be getting on base at the top of the lineup. Hopfner has been the team's best hitters for a few years now but Erro has been a major surprise as a true freshman.
CQ: OK, let’s step aside from this weekend’s series for just a moment: from a distance, it seems as if Northwestern’s athletics are in a far better place right now than they have been in a very long time, if their not better than ever. The men’s basketball team just made its first NCAA Tournament. The football program is more than competitive in the Big Ten West and has been to five bowl games the last six years. Women’s lacrosse won seven consecutive national championships with the last coming just a few years ago. But Northwestern baseball hasn’t had a winning season since 2000. What’s the problem? Why hasn’t this program found success?
Josh: It's all about expectations. Allen's predecessor, Paul Stevens, was in Evanston for 30 years (as an assistant and then head coach) and despite never putting forth too competitive a team, his job status was seemingly never in jeopardy because administration just didn't put too much of an onus on winning. Most recruits were from Illinois and surrounding states, which capped the team's potential even as other Big Ten programs started to recruit heavily from around the country. Stevens just didn't market the program well enough to draw the kind of talent needed to compete in a power conference, and the facilities weren't up to par either.
CQ: The Wildcats have a beautiful new ballpark, play just miles from a baseball crazed city, and have Spencer Allen is in his second season at the helm. Is there a feeling yet for whether he is the guy to make this program competitive? Are there good things on the horizon?
Josh: Hiring a well-respected guy like Spencer Allen signaled a major shift by the athletic department toward building a legitimate program that can contend in the Big Ten in the future. Losing kind of became the norm under Stevens, and with Allen -- as well as improved baseball facilities -- that change in mindset is just starting to be undergone. The recruiting has already improved significantly as Allen breathed life into the program, which should lead to more wins in the seasons to come. Most of this team's promising players are freshmen and sophomores that Allen brought to Evanston himself, which is a very bright sign going forward.
CQ: Alright, finally, what you do think we see this weekend?
Josh: I think the Wildcats can steal a game this weekend, maybe if Christie throws another complete game gem like he did earlier in the season against Santa Clara. But I think the Hoosiers are going to put up a lot of crooked numbers, especially if the wind is blowing out toward Lake Michigan as it tends to do in late March/early April. That would make it hard for Northwestern to even take two of three.
Big thanks to Josh for taking the time to answer our questions. CQ will have a full series preview tomorrow morning before the teams tangle in Evanston tomorrow afternoon.