After 26 games, Northwestern baseball (5-22, 3-3 B1G) won its first series of the year. The Wildcats bested Illinois (13-15, 3-6 B1G) two games to one, the first time the team has done so in four three-game series against a singular team. For a year riddled with losses, the first series win is another step in head coach Jim Foster and his squad’s road to recovering the season.
Who doesn’t love drama?
Illinois had worked its way to a 3-1 lead by the bottom of the ninth inning and were on the doorstep of victory. Then in the ninth, second-year pinch hitter Alex Roessner hit a ground out with the bases loaded that brought Evan Minarovic home to cut the deficit to one. After first-year shortstop Owen McElfatrick walked to reload the bases, graduate catcher Cooper Foard called game.
While five Wildcats either hit or walked their way on base in the ninth to win the game, the team’s pitching and defense made the comeback possible. Third-year ace Matt McClure started the game and pitched six innings, allowing just five hits and two earned runs. Fourth-year arm Coby Moe entered in the eighth and held Illinois scoreless for two innings while striking out three batters. The team defense was on point as NU finished the game with no errors for the first time since March 19.
Offensively, fourth-year right fielder Stephen Hrustich hit two-for-four with an RBI double that opened the scoring of the game, but he was the only member of the lineup with more than one hit.
The Illini fought back.
Illinois scored four runs before NU scored one, and Illinois also added three in the ninth to put the game out of reach.
Graduate pitcher Michael Farinelli took the mound first for NU, and surrendered seven hits and four runs in four innings. First-year lefty Sam Garewal took over for Farinelli, and while he struck out five batters in 4.1 innings, he gave up the crucial three runs in the ninth, albeit just one of them earned.
The Wildcats’ offense hit more times than the day prior, thanks in part to multi-hit days from Minarovic and McElfatrick but left nine runners on base compared to three in the previous day.
NU hit its way to victory this time around.
Hrustich hit a three-run bomb in the bottom of the first to start what would be a two-for-three day with a walk for him.
After Illinois tied the game, graduate center fielder Griffin Arnone laid down a bunt single in the fifth that scored Foard. The Fighting Illini knotted up the score again until McElfatrick hit his second home run of his career to left field in the eighth to break the game open and seal the game for the ’Cats.
The Wildcats had more hits than Illinois for the first time in the series, and six members of the starting lineup recorded a hit along with one of two pinch hitters.
On the mound, third-year righty Luke Benneche got the Sunday start and pitched six innings, striking out four and allowing four runs. Third-year arm Ben Grable pitched the remaining three, shutting out the Illini. He struck out two while allowing just one hit. The defense yet again allowed no errors, a common factor in three of the Wildcats’ five wins.
While it may not be a high bar, the Illinois series is the best the baseball ’Cats have looked all year. The team pulled out two wins with effort in the latter innings, a flip of fortunes from the late-game collapses in the pre-conference schedule. The offense enjoyed strong games from Hrustich and second-year catcher Alex Calarco as usual but were also powered by a strong weekend from players like Foard and Minarovic. The pitchers all looked solid, both starters and bullpen. The defense averaged just .667 errors over the series, among the best they’ve done over any three-game stretch this season. The ugly duckling that was the beginning of the season is starting to show its swan-like potential.