Following an emphatic 10-2 win over Minnesota (26-25, 15-9 B1G) on Saturday, Northwestern baseball (24-27, 11-13 B1G) appeared primed to snag one of the eight berths in the Big Ten Tournament. Led by head coach Spencer Allen, the squad sat in seventh place and needed everything to go wrong on Sunday to miss out.
The ‘Cats were on the losing side of a 6-5 battle at Rocky Miller Park on Senior Day in the regular season finale. Meanwhile, Maryland completed an unexpected sweep of Iowa and Ohio State completed a sweep of Purdue, combining to deliver a three-headed gut punch to Northwestern.
The loss ended the careers of seniors Willie Bourbon, Ben Dickey, Jack Dunn and Danny Katz. Minnesota enters the Tournament as the No. 4 seed, facing off against No. 5 seed Nebraska. The Gophers are the defending Big Ten champions and lead the Big Ten with 10 conference tournament titles all-time.
The series kicked off on Thursday afternoon, and the Gophers caught the Wildcats flat. Minnesota scored five runs in the top of the first off starter Ryan Bader. The dagger was a two-run homer from catcher Eli Wilson on a 3-2 count to make it 4-0 before Bader had even retired a single batter.
Bader battled through the first inning and - remarkably - threw five subsequent innings of shutout baseball. But the damage in the first was too difficult to overcome.
A Casey O’Laughlin RBI single in the fourth made the score 5-2. That was followed by RBI singles from Ben Dickey and Jack Kelly in the fifth to cut the deficit to one. Willie Bourbon slid under Eli Wilson’s tag attempt to score what would be Northwestern’s final run:
Minnesota reliever Nick Lackney shut down the Wildcats from there on out, racking up five strikeouts in 3⅔ innings. Closer Brett Schulze came on in the ninth for the save.
Willie Bourbon went 2-3 with two runs in the loss.
Despite the loss, Northwestern entered Friday’s game in a three-way tie for seventh place in the Big Ten. The ‘Cats made it clear that they were not going to back down, using offensive firepower to put Minnesota away early. After building a three-run lead, Northwestern exploded for seven runs in the bottom of the fifth to essentially seal the outcome.
Jack Dunn (2-3, 2 runs) hit a leadoff triple in the first and came around to score on an Alex Erro (3 RBI) RBI groundout. The star of the game, however, was Casey O’Laughlin: the left fielder hit a solo homerun in the fourth and unleashed a three-RBI double in the fifth.
Minnesota threatened in the top of the seventh, scoring two runs and loading the bases before reliever Tommy D’Alise induced a pop off to Shawn Goosenberg to end the threat. D’Alise replaced freshman starter Mike Doherty, who improved to 5-1 on the year with a quality start.
Goosenberg, for his part, went 3-4 with 3 RBI and a triple in the win.
In their most important game of the season, Northwestern drew first blood. Sophomore southpaw Jack Pagliarini shut down Minnesota for two innings before the Wildcats got to Gopher starter Joshua Culliver in the bottom of the second. Ben Dickey ripped an RBI single up the middle that got past the center fielder, enabling Dickey to go all the way to third.
The next batter, designated hitter Jack Kelly, notched an RBI single to give Northwestern an insurance run.
However, Minnesota answered right back with two runs of their own in the third, highlighted by an RBI triple in the right-center field gap off the bat of Easton Bertrand. The back-and-forth continued in the bottom of the third as Willie Bourbon roped a double over the first baseman’s head to bring in Jack Dunn. The senior first baseman came up clutch this weekend, going 5-11 with four runs.
After Jordan Kozicky launched a ball over the left field fence to put Minnesota back on top, 4-3, the skies opened and a nearly three-hour rain delay ensued. Interestingly, Spencer Allen brought in top reliever Nick Paciorek - usually reserved for the last innings - following the delay. Paciorek allowed a run in the fifth before Shawn Goosenberg scored on a wild pitch in the bottom of the frame to put the ‘Cats back within one. Both sides again scored once in the sixth, with David Dunn scoring from first on a Michael Trautwein double in the bottom of the inning.
Northwestern failed to get anything going against two southpaws out the the Minnesota bullpen in the seventh and eighth, before Schulze came on in the ninth and struck out Bourbon to end the Wildcats’ season.
This weekend stings, but overall 2019 marks a five-game improvement for the Wildcats over a disappointing 2018. Young pieces like David Dunn, Shawn Goosenberg, and Mike Doherty have demonstrated an ability to perform on big stages, meaning the future of Northwestern baseball is indeed exciting.