Birdball Preview/Prediction: Northeastern

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Must win ballgame? Must win ballgame.

Last week, Boston College baseball saw one game postponed and three more moved to neutral sites after Shea Field was deemed unplayable. Without the ability to play Holy Cross, BC lost two of three to Wake Forest. And while the two opponents/events aren't correlated at all, there's no doubting the fact that the last calendar week has been a stain on a season teetering on the brink for the Birdballers.

But like the ancient philosopher Jon Taffer says, "I'm not in the business of excuses. I'm in the business of solutions."

Whatever the reason BC had a bad week last week, they absolutely must improve this week because losing to ACC teams is one thing. Losing to local opponents is something else altogether.

The Eagles will take on the Northeastern Huskies presumably at Parsons Field on Tuesday afternoon before the assumedly-final (I don't know if that's a word, but I made it up thinking it sounded good) snow storm of the 2013-2014 winter moves in. Once again, BC can't play at Shea Field, a result of unplayable conditions. Instead, the Eagles will use the same "home field" BC had last week - and the home field of the Northeastern Huskies.

No word yet on what happens for the ACC series this weekend.

Regardless of what happens, though, this matchup is as must win as it gets for the team. They've been floundering after starting out hot, and they've lost a ton in the last three weeks. This past weekend, they faced a Wake Forest team they should've competed against and got blown out in two of three games. After Northeastern, they're likely to be swept again against Florida State, unless the Seminoles turn to icicles if the temperature remains 40 degrees and they have to play somewhere else anyways.

The ACC losses are coming against good teams, but if BC wants to improve on last year's dismal record, then they absolutely have to win games against local competition. They can't lose, least of all, to Northeastern, a team playing in the CAA that overtook them as Boston's preeminent non-Harvard baseball club. This is one of those games where BC has to win and potentially win big. And given the performance stats over the first couple months of the year, we can rightfully assume that's what'll happen.

Why? Because BC hung with Virginia, hung with Miami, and hung with FAU. Those are tough teams, and if the performance is to remain constant, then you can throw stats out the window. I'm as big of a stats guy as they come, but this is one of those games where you need to create an outlier statistic on the positive. Play better than what you've done and tilt the scoreboard and the field in your favor. You absolutely cannot lose to Northeastern. Otherwise, you're going to face the same arguments from last year about the team simply not being good enough to win ballgames.

Is this a must win ballgame? This is as must win as a non-conference game against a local rival can be.

On with the breakdown.

BC offense vs. NU defense

Boston College's offense has really flat-lined over the past couple of weeks. The team batting average is down around the .250 mark, and some of the guys who were crushing the ball a couple of weeks have hit major slumps. Chris Shaw is down to .253, and despite a seven-game hitting streak, Gabriel Hernandez is only hitting .258. The leading hitter on the BC squad is Logan Hoggarth, but even at .271 he has six less RBI than the team lead.

The good news is that BC's hitters aren't experiencing a major drop off - they're all hitting around the same mark. Of regular players, Hoggarth at .271 is only 40 or so points higher than Johnny Adams at .236. But the drop off of the team from the beginning of the season is a result of not hitting against better pitching. The throwers for teams like Central Michigan and Villanova are nowhere near the guys on the hill for teams like Virginia or Miami.

So what's that mean for BC? It means they have to prove they fall right in the middle. They're not good enough to hit consistently well against Virginia until they can prove it against teams in the national rankings (teams like, oh, Florida State), and by consistently well, I mean delivering knockout blows in the middle innings even if the team falls short. But it does mean they should be able to mash pitchers from other leagues not as competitive as the ACC, leagues like Conference USA and, as it turns out, the Colonial Athletic Association.

Northeastern enters this game with a sub-.500 record with a similar issue to BC. The Huskies pitching staff pitched very well against teams like Central Michigan, St. Bonaventure, and Western Michigan. They swept Niagara, and they held Presbyterian under five runs. But they lost to Texas A&M and struggled in other games against Presbyterian (gave up 11 in a win). They're a team that should be a mile below the top-rated ACC teams and a team that should be steps below Boston College.

That said, it's up to BC to perform. BC has to prove that their games against CMU and Villanova are because they're just simply more talented and better. The hitters can't walk into this game and fail to hit with men on the way they have pretty much all season. They need to be able to manufacture runs in big ways. This is one of those games where they need to send a statement - if the defense gives up a run, then they need to respond in a big way.

BC Defense vs. NU Offense

On the whole, I really haven't had an issue with BC's pitching staff all year. There were really only one or two bad outings from which to speak of, and one of them was this past weekend against Wake Forest. You can't really go back over the whole season and find a moment when Boston College was totally, unequivocally blown out. Even the Wake Forest shutout loss was because they walked too many batters and got into too many jams because of it.

As a result, this is one of those games where BC needs to come out and shut down the bats. Four hitters for the Huskies are hitting over .300, including Connor Lyons at .348. Michael Foster and Brad Burcoff both have 10 or more RBI, and Northeastern mashed out 10 hits or more six times in their 18 games.

But there's an advantage for BC - Northeastern strikes out a ton. They whiffed 14 times against Houston Baptist and Texas A&M, whiffed eight times separately against the Aggies and against Villanova, and whiffed seven times on three separate occasions.

For that reason, BC pitchers need to attack the Northeastern hitters and shut this game down before it gets started. They have to pound the strike zone and not get behind hitters. I stand reason to believe NU will help them out if they swing and miss, but if the Huskies are trying to work on patience in the same sense that BC is trying to work on hitting with men on, then attack that one weakness. Make them swing the bat, and then stymie them. It's a chess match, one that can and should be won by the Eagle pitching.

Prediction

I'd be lying if I said I wasn't nervous about this game. Boston College over the past couple of weeks, especially after the Snowbird Classic, morphed from a team quieting the doubters into the ones who are proving some of the doubters right. With the last couple of weeks, we've seen an uptick in arguments about this team and the complaints thereof. The only way to quiet the doubters is to go out on the field and win the game.

For that reason, I'm saying BC should win this game. The CAA is a decent baseball conference, and it has decent baseball teams. Last year, the league had two locks for the tournament in UNC Wilmington and William and Mary, then got a third team in when Towson inexplicably won the league tournament. But the CAA is not the ACC; it shouldn't be on the same level when you get down into the middle tier of the league. The top CAA teams should be able to compete with the bottom tiers of the ACC much in the same sense as a team like Villanova's football team shouldn't get killed by the lower edge of the ACC.

But Northeastern is not a top CAA team. They finished 7th in last year's league, and if you're going to prove to us that you're an improved team, you go out and handle business. Leave no doubt, end this game, maybe even provide a cushion and blow them out a little bit if you want us to smile, but don't lose. Losing to local teams is inexcusable when you want to prove you can compete with the ACC's middle tier, and there's a lot to prove for BC baseball this year.

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