NIU baseball: Ben Neumann excels as Huskies’ ace

By Steve Shonder

There’s only one way for baseball head coach Mike Kunignois to characterize senior Ben Neumann’s performance after Neumann transitioned from reliever to ace starter: “awesome.”

“There’s no other way to describe what he’s done except awesomeness,” Kunigonis said.

This season, Neumann boasts a 2.88 ERA over seven starts with 40.2 innings pitched. Neumann has been lights out, allowing just seven runs in his five starts since only going for three innings in his season debut and getting roughed up for four runs in his second start.

“Outside of the first two starts, it was different, but now that I’ve had seven starts, I’ve settled in a little bit,” Neumann said.

After the 2014 season, the Huskies lost their top three starting pitchers to graduation, which necessitated their bullpen arms to begin starting. Neumann has made the most of the switch with the team taking full advantage of his starts. They’re 5-2 in games he starts.

Kunigonis is confident Neumann is going to keep the top of the Huskies’ rotation locked down as he was impressed with his pitching ace’s offseason and the results thus far.

“The first time I saw him throw I thought he had the potential to be a special arm,” Kunigonis said. “He’s just proving it now. I’m just sad I only get to watch for one year, but I think he’s got a bright future ahead of him and bright future in the next [couple] months for us, too.”

The fatigue factor that can trip up converted relievers isn’t stinging Neumann. He has eclipsed his previous innings pitched total from the 2014 season, when he threw 29 innings out of the bullpen.

“He’s done an unbelievable job,” said junior Johnny Zubek. “I didn’t know what to expect at first because a lot [of the] time you see that happen, you see guys make that transition, they can’t handle it and they don’t have the stamina. He’s been great. … He’s always been really confident. That’s something he’s always taken out to the mound as a starter.”

Neumann has also handled the mental aspect of being a starting pitcher well, picking up on how to attack hitters now that he knows he’ll be on the mound for more than a few innings.

“When you’re coming out of the pen, you can go for that strikeout every time and have that 18-pitch inning,” Neumann said. “Whereas when you’re the starter and you have that 18-pitch inning you’re going to be out [of] the game pretty quick.”

The biggest difference for Neumann hasn’t been just his approach; it’s been what he deals out to hitters, helping to keep them guessing. That method has factored into games where Neumann doesn’t have his best stuff, like his outing against the Bowling Green Falcons on Friday. Neumann was able to grind out the win by not letting hitters make solid contact and forcing 10 groundouts, three of which were double-play balls.

“He’s developed another pitch,” Zubek said. “He’s been working on a change-up. I think that’s been the biggest thing. Instead of being just a two-pitch guy he’s become a three-pitch guy.”