With 21 games played in the Big Ten baseball season, Northwestern (11-10, 7th B1G) is still an unsolvable mystery. Some days they hit lots of home runs and dominate by double digits, other days they're being shellacked and struggling to score. With their first home series in two years finally being played the weekend of April 9 against Rutgers (11-9, 6th B1G), Wildcat fans were hoping they’d finally see what their team is really made of.
They may have to wait another week to find out.
Northwestern lost a tightly contested series to Rutgers over the weekend in a dramatic series that saw late comebacks, walk off home runs and yes, the aforementioned destructive loss. In games that saw the emergence of possible MVPs and postseason pitching cores, Northwestern may be beginning to define its identity: one of dramatic flair and fan-inducing frenzy.
The series began on Friday, April 9, with a game that saw the continuing dominance of junior right-hander Mike Doherty. Doherty, who got the start for the ’Cats, looked almost untouchable in his sixth start of the year, allowing just one earned run and only five hits over seven innings of work. He was backed up offensively by Northwestern’s long-ball hitters. Junior Anthony Calarco, junior Michael Trautwein, first-year Stephen Hrustich and junior Shawn Goosenberg each tallied a solo shot over the first seven innings.
As has been the case for many Northwestern games, however, the Wildcats’ bullpen almost blew it for Northwestern, allowing four runs to score in the final two frames to send it to extra innings. The ’Cats found a steady presence, however, in first-year righty Garrett Boeckle, who tossed three shutout innings to keep Northwestern in the game. Finally, in the 12th inning, Goosenberg flexed his might and sent a towering shot into left-center field to give the ’Cats a walkoff win.
Hoping to capitalize on the momentum, Northwestern sent out junior right-hander Tyler Uberstine for the second game on Saturday and engaged in an early back-and-forth with Rutgers graduate pitcher Ben Wereski. Eight total runs were scored over the first three innings, including another two-run home run from Goosenberg. It would be the first of three hits Goosenberg would collect on the day.
Once again, however, Northwestern faltered late in the game, with a sketchy bullpen largely to blame. After Uberstine exited the game after five innings, eight strikeouts and allowing five runs, sophomore right-hander Coby Moe allowed three runs to score on a bases-loaded single by Rutgers junior outfielder Richie Schiekofer, effectively dooming the ’Cats. Unable to score again after the first two innings, Northwestern dropped the second game 8-4, forcing a winner-takes-all match on Sunday.
In the rubber match, Northwestern sent out senior lefty Quinn Lavelle to duel against Rutgers first-year lefty Justin Sinibaldi. The rookie would get the better of the veteran, as Lavelle would exit after 4.1 innings of work with four runs allowed. It put the ’Cats in a difficult spot, trusting their bullpen as they tried to claw back from a 4-0 deficit – it almost appeared to be too much, as they headed to the bottom of the ninth down 5-1.
It was there that the ’Cats began to show their abilities for late-game heroics. After two straight singles from graduate outfielder Leo Kaplan and first-year infielder Tony Livermore, Calarco scored Kaplan on a single to center and Livermore scored on a wild pitch thrown by Rutgers graduate pitcher Kyle Muller. Muller, who had allowed just one run to score over nine prior appearances, gave up the two-run home run that tied the score to none other than Shawn Goosenberg.
Like other Northwestern games, however, the ’Cats could not ride this momentum in the extras, as Northwestern junior right-hander Reed Smith allowed a solo shot to Rutgers first-year first baseman Jordan Sweeney, and Northwestern failed to get anything going in their frame. Despite a heroic comeback in the ninth, the ’Cats could not finish the deal.
A huge contributing factor to this series loss was the continuing issue of the Northwestern bullpen, who choked away a large lead in the first game and allowed critical runs to score in the second and third. Despite fantastic performances from Doherty and Uberstine, they were almost for naught, as the pitchers who followed them couldn't capitalize on the opportunity. No matter how many runs the ’Cats' hard-hitting offense scores, if Northwestern cannot lock down on the mound, there may be no postseason in Evanston this year.
The first true test of the season will come next weekend, when Northwestern will take on perennial Big Ten contender Indiana (13-7, 3rd B1G). If the bullpen can hold themselves together and the fantastic performance by players like Goosenberg continues, perhaps the questions ’Cats fans hold about the team will finally be answered.
Let’s hope, at least.