Baseball is a funny thing.
The game is constructed so that the defensive team must make an effort to stop the offense from playing. Get three outs, and you get to switch sides. There is no running clock to abide by. This configuration makes it technically possible for a game to never end. If one team just continued to score – or more fittingly, one team simply couldn’t muster three outs – that offensive team is allowed – no, obligated – to continue to hit, forever. This is a possibility I used to think about as a child, but the more rational side of my brain always chimed in, reasoning, “Interesting as that is, it will never happen. The defensive team would just get the three outs. Three is a low number, an inning won’t ever last that long.”
Oh, how foolish I was.
I witnessed a game that felt like it lasted forever on April 11, when the Northwestern Wildcats (6-25, 3-6 B1G) took on the University of Illinois-Chicago Flames (14-17, 3-9 MVC). And I never saw it coming.
The game started normally enough. Graduate pitcher Ethan Sund started the game, and pitched a scoreless first inning. In the bottom of the first inning, Northwestern enjoyed some offensive success. Graduate center fielder Griffin Arnone hit a leadoff home run.
Fourth-year third baseman Evan Minarovic scored on a fielder’s choice ground ball from second-year first baseman Bennett Markinson. Two RBI singles later, Northwestern had a 4-0 lead, and I was feeling optimistic. The baseball team hasn’t played well this season, which made the success that much more enjoyable. I had the pleasure of watching wins in person before, and with this start, I looked forward to watching another.
Then, something shifted.
I was taken away from the normal game I came to watch, from the normal world I lived in, from the expected laws of time and space.
I couldn’t tell at first. Third-year first baseman Breck Nowik walked, then was thrown out trying to steal second base. “Great job getting a quick first out, I would love another scoreless inning,” I thought.
But fate had something much different planned. Third-year shortstop Ryan Nagelbach also walked. Back-to-back walks aren't great, but it’s not the end of the world, or so I thought.
First-year catcher Jackson Bessette singles, getting men on first and second. Wild pitch, men on second and third. Third-year designated hitter Cole Conn singles, UIC scores. 4-1 game. It’s just one run. Good thing NU scored four. Third-year right fielder Rayth Peterson walks, bases loaded. Sund is pulled from the game. Second-year relief Grant Comstock comes into the game. This is not a good situation, hopefully Comstock calms the game down.
I hadn’t seen nothing yet.
Comstock hits the first two batters he faces, walking two more runs across home plate. 4-3 game, and UIC has just one out. Third-year left fielder Carson Roberts hits a two-RBI single, and UIC takes the lead, 5-4.
Nolan Morr enters to pitch for Comstock, who got zero outs. That was ugly. Need Morr to come in and shut the door. Morr hits the first batter he faces. That is three hit batters in the inning so far. What's going on?
Nowik, who hit first in the inning, is back at the plate. He hits a home run. 9-4 game. It was at this moment that I realized this wasn’t a normal baseball game; I was witnessing something different, something unusual, something absurd.
Nagelbach doubles, and moves to third on a wild pitch, for the second time this inning. Bessette hits an RBI double. 10-4. The inning scoreboard at Rocky & Bernice Miller Park was not built to show a 10-run inning, so as this score occurred a zero somewhat ironically appeared, adding to the sheer unbelievability of what was occurring. Please, stop this before the game gets out of reach!
Cole Conn homers. 12-4. This inning started with an out, and UIC has scored 12 runs since that without recording another out. Will this ever end?
Peterson hits a fly out. The on-base streak is broken, and Northwestern’s defenders are, in fact, capable of making an out. Nearly there, just get that last out before things get any worse, if that’s possible. A walk, a hit by pitch, and an RBI single. 13-4. An error brings another run across. 14-4. A four-run lead had turned into a 10-run deficit, and life no longer felt real. Drew Dickson entered to pitch for Morr and mercifully ended the inning. It took four Northwestern pitchers to finish the inning.
Four pitchers, for three outs.
As a lifelong fan of sports, I’ve seen a lot of amazing, improbable feats. I’ve also seen some of the depths of athletic futility. That second inning tops both lists.
Like any good performer, UIC gave everyone in attendance an encore in the third inning. The Flames torched their way to eight more runs, highlighted by a grand slam and another Wildcats pitching change. 22-4. At this point, my shock and awe had worn off, I was numb and resigned to the oncoming blowout loss.
But this game was far from over.
In the bottom of the fourth, Northwestern’s offense rose again when second-year first baseman Alex Calarco hit a grand slam. 22-8. Calarco is a prominent hitter on the team, but this was the first home run of his career. Good for Calarco to finally get a homer, but this game is still out of reach, I thought. Later on in the inning, first-year shortstop Owen McElfatrick hit a three run bomb. 22-11. The Wildcats were still down by 11 runs, a hard margin to erase, but the team just scored seven runs in one inning, and had five more innings to close the gap.
From there, the game calmed down. UIC added two more runs, Northwestern scored another due to Calarco being hit by a pitch, all until the bottom of the eighth inning. Northwestern scored six more runs, coming from two homers and a UIC error. 24-18. This is… a somewhat close game?
Sports and emotion are inseparably tied together. The joy of a win, the sadness in loss. But during a game, comes a wide litany of strong feelings. Anxiety at the start of play. Anticipation as Northwestern opens a 4-0 lead. Bewilderment during a 14-run inning. Dejection in the following eight-run inning. Tempered appreciation as Northwestern scores four more runs, and after the Wildcats cut the deficit to six… Hope.
Of all that I had experienced at Rocky & Bernice Miller Park, of all the emotions and thoughts racing through my head, hope was the least expected of all. The hope wouldn’t last, as although Northwestern scored two more in the bottom of the ninth, they lost, 24-20. That feeling of hope, however, 22-4 turning into 24-18, it reminded me of something.
Baseball is a funny thing.
It’s simultaneously beautiful and ugly, coordinated and chaotic, desolate and full of hope. And that’s why I love it.