Baseball: Going out on top? Not quite

Matt Forman

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Even in defeat, Northwestern’s seniors went out with a bang.

After Sunday’s series finale was delayed two hours due to rain, the Wildcats (20-25, 13-15 Big Ten) fought back throughout their extra-inning 14-12 loss to Indiana. Sunday’s game was the last home contest at Rocky Miller Park this season.

“Today was a day for the seniors,” junior Tony Vercelli said. “They played really well all weekend and certainly played like it was their last. We would have liked to get the ‘W,’ but we came up just short.”

The loss evened the series with Indiana (23-28, 11-17 Big Ten) 2-2. It was the Cats’ fourth Big Ten series split this season.

After the teams combined to score 34 runs in the first three games of the series, they put up 26 runs in Sunday’s finale. The Cats traded runs with the Hoosiers throughout the contest but found themselves down 11-8 in the bottom of the ninth.

But no one in the NU dugout was giving up.

“I stand in this third-0base coach’s box and if I close my eyes, I can see these guys when they’re in the batter’s box doing things that will get us back into games,” Stevens said. “There’s always that sense of, ‘you know what, it’s not over.'”

With Kalina on second and two down, senior Max Mann traded places with his classmate after he drove a 1-1 curveball off the top of the fence in left field for a double. Vercelli, who pinch hit in the bottom of the fourth for Chad Noble, smacked an 0-1 fastball to center field for a game-tying home run.

Replacing Noble with Vercelli was a decision that paid off for Stevens late in the game.

“It looks great in the ninth inning when (Vercelli) went big-time yard and everyone was going ballistic,” he said.

Indiana responded with three runs on four hits off reliever Matt Gailey in the top of the tenth. NU rallied to score once in the bottom half of the inning but came up two runs short.

Mann had a Senior Day to remember. NU’s designated hitter went 4-for-4 with 3 RBIs, including a home run and two doubles.

“It was a great day, ” he said. “We were worried this morning that we weren’t going to be able to get the game in. All of the seniors really wanted to play. To come out and be able to hit the ball well in my last appearance at Rocky Miller was just great.”

While several seniors shone on Senior Day, it was the team’s underclassmen that excelled early in the weekend.

NU won the opening game of the series 8-5. Freshman Eric Jokisch pitched 7.2 innings of nine-hit baseball, allowing four runs. Jokisch’s seventh win of the season set the school’s single-season record for freshmen.

“He only threw 100 pitches and hung around into the eighth inning,” Stevens said. “That’s pitcher picture perfect.”

After a stellar pitching performance from Jokisch, no one could have expected a better performance by sophomore David Jensen in the series’ second game. Despite going toe-to-toe with one of the Big Ten’s best starting pitchers, Matt Bashore, Jensen allowed two runs on four hits in a 2-1 loss.

“I was pumped,” Jensen said. “I liked facing the other team’s ace. I mean the pressure’s on him. I’m the kid with the 10 ERA, so I thought it was fun.”

NU battled back with a 10-8 victory in the second game of Saturday’s doubleheader. After jumping out to a 7-2 advantage, the Cats surrendered the early lead as Indiana drew even at seven.

After the first two Cats reached base in the sixth, Lashmet knocked in three of his five RBIs came with one swing of the bat. He blasted a home run to center field on a 2-0 fastball, putting NU ahead 10-7.

“I was jacked up after that,” Lashmet said. “I was pumping my fists going around the bases. It felt good … I lost it, my emotions ran.”

The series split left NU in danger of missing the Big Ten tournament, which includes the conference’s top six teams. Currently in sixth place, the Cats are two percentage points ahead of Michigan State, a game ahead of the Spartans in both the win and loss columns.

The Cats next travel to Ann Arbor, Mich., to face the first-place Michigan Wolverines, who have already clinched the Big Ten regular season title.

And while Mann has played his final home series, he doesn’t want the series with Michigan to be the last of his career.

“We’ve positioned ourselves to where we hold our own destiny,” Mann said. “We need to win. We’re not giving up. We’re going to battle our butts off and get to that tournament. Michigan is going to be tough, but we’re coming for them.”