Huskies complete fall ball set

By Andrew Singer

While the baseball world’s attention is squarely on the 2010 MLB season’s dying days, the NIU baseball team has already begun preparation for its 2011 campaign.

Wednesday marked the conclusion of the Red/Black series for NIU. The annual intrasquad set of games puts the focus on playing outside while the Huskies still can. Commencing over the course of two weeks every fall, the five-game set takes place at Ralph McKinzie Field.

“This is a very important time for us,” said NIU head coach Ed Mathey. “Being a northern school, getting out on the field is huge. The three weeks we have prior to the first game in the spring is all indoors. So the way we put ourselves to bed here is really important.”

Regardless of the climate, a fall series plays an important role in most college baseball programs.

“I think most schools in the country have some form of this,” Mathey said. “We play a five-game set. Some schools have a three-game set or a one-game set. But it’s a chance for the kids to get outside and play as a team.”

For NIU pitchers, the Red/Black series represents the last opportunity before spring to develop a pitch in a live game setting. Right-handed pitcher Zach Oates always approaches the series with something to improve upon.

“Throwing outside is huge, with the wind and elements affecting the ball,” Oates said. “I’m working on a changeup right now. And I know that I’m going to have to develop that soon if I want a chance to crack the starting lineup this year.”

Outfielder and left-handed pitcher Jake Hermsen didn’t have any specific pitch to work on during the series. However, the dual-threat junior still believes the time on the field every fall represents an important opportunity.

“I’m just trying to build up my arm strength, because once we get inside it’s really hard to work on long-toss or anything like that.” Hermsen said. “There are no real indoor mounds either, so we have to throw off artificial ones in the winter.”

Mathey devotes time to all his players during the series, but he especially likes to work with the position players during the five-game set.

“We emphasize the work with our fielders during the few days we have outside,” Mathey said. “Concentrating on the things we know we can’t do in the winter like working with the infield on bunt coverage or double cut situations with the outfielders.”

To the casual fan, talk of setting a lineup four months from first pitch sounds pretty odd. While Mathey hasn’t drawn up the regular season lineup quite yet, he does have a pretty good idea what it will look like.

“There could be some movement between the fall and spring,” Mathey said. “But after this series, we pretty much got an idea who’s going to be in the rotations early on, and who’s going to get those early chances for playing time.”

As far as the winner of the series, the Black team came back from two games down to capture the series 3-2. Mathey believed that having the series go down to the wire helped his team grow.

“We took it to five games, and there was some competitive spirit out there which was good,” Mathey said. “For us as coaches, with the number of young guys, it was good to see them try and respond at this level in a game.”