Baseball: Walk-off woe for NU

Matt Forman

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Baseball is a game of failure, says sophomore first baseman Jake Goebbert.

Sometimes failure can be especially devastating.

No one knows that better than Northwestern, which suffered a demoralizing 10-9 loss at the hands of intrastate rival Illinois in the final game of its four-game series Monday night.

In an up-and-down game, the Wildcats came from behind twice before falling in the final frame to the Fighting Illini.

“This game was a heartbreaker,” freshman pitcher Eric Jokisch said. “It’s really tough to take.”

After tying the game in the seventh inning, the Cats took a late 7-6 lead in the eighth when Newman hit an RBI groundout to shortstop.

NU’s first lead since the second inning evaporated in the bottom half of the eighth. Senior closer Matt Havey allowed a two-out, two-run home run to right field, erasing the Cats’ lead.

Trailing 8-7, NU responded once more. Frehsman Nate Roberts singled to center and designated hitter Tony Vercelli was hit by a pitch. Noble plated Roberts with an RBI single to center field, tying the game 8-8.

With runners on first and third and one out, coach Paul Stevens signaled for the suicide squeeze, willing to gamble to put the Cats in front.

“(Shortstop) Tommy (Finn) has been struggling at little at the bat, Stevens said. “He’s an oustanding bunter, and it gave us a chance to take the lead. We wanted to take the lead.”

Finn bunted the 1-0 pitch down the third-base line, scoring Vercelli and giving the Cats a 9-8 advantage.

“We were really excited,” said Goebbert about taking the late lead. “We had battled back multiple times in the game. We really thought we had that game.”

Stevens’ tactics paid off, and he had Illinois right where he wanted them – down by a run with the Big Ten’s ERA leader, Havey, on the hill.

But for the second time in as many innings, Havey did not come through in the clutch. After striking out the first batter on five pitches in the ninth, he allowed a single to centerfield, followed by another two-out, two-run home run, this time in walk-off fashion.

Before his first blown save of the season, Havey had been a master escape artist. He had worked out of every jam the Cats’ pitching staff could put him into.

Still, Stevens said his confidence in his bullpen stopper has not wavered.

“The guy’s been amazing all year,” he said. “I still have the utmost confidence. If I could go to him all four games as early as I could, I would.”

That might just be the problem. Prior to his senior season, Havey had pitched a combined 27 innings in his career. Through two-thirds of this season, he has tossed 43 innings.

Havey has appeared weary as of late, but Jokisch, who started the first game of Sunday’s doubleheader, said he still trusted the senior out of the bullpen.

“We still have confidence in him,” he said. “He’s the best in the Big Ten. I’d take him closing my games every day.”

Havey did just that Sunday, stranding two runners in scoring position at the end of the game to follow up Jokisch’s five innings of two-run ball.

“When we were able to get the close victory, we thought it would help and help us turn the tide and get more wins,” Jokisch said of the Cats’ only win of the series, which came after a 10-run loss Saturday.

NU lost the first game of the series 14-4 after starting pitcher Joe Muraski surrendered five runs in two innings of work. The early deficit was too much to overcome for the Cats, whose offensive production was highlighted by a two-run home run by Vercelli.

NU lost in similar fashion in the second-half of Sunday’s doubleheader, falling behind early when starting pitcher David Jensen allowed eight runs in four innings.

NU’s 3-1 series loss was only its second of the season. The Cats find themselves in the middle of the Big Ten standings, part of a four-team race for the final two spots in the conference tournament.

If the Cats want to make the postseason, they will have to put the loss behind them and focus on the upcoming series with Indiana. Stevens said the best athletes he has coached have been those with the shortest memories, enabling them to forget about past failures and move on.

“It definitely hurts,” he said. “I’m looking at a lot of faces on this bus that are very upset about losing. And I don’t want them to take it lightly. But we’ve got to keep banging away and take care of business this weekend.”