Baseball: Brooke, Cats smoke Flames

Jonah Rosenblum

Coming off three straight Big Ten series losses, coach Paul Stevens was fired up Tuesday, high-fiving and cheering his team on to a 3-2 victory over UIC.

The veteran manager said he was particularly motivated after a successful infield practice with his catchers and simply took that energy into the contest.

“I was really fired up, and it just carried over for the rest of the game.” Stevens said. “I just didn’t leave any stones unturned in the dugout. We were flip-flopping a lot of stuff today, getting some people to understand that when it comes to opportunity and scenarios that they might be involved in this weekend, that there is a sense of urgency.”

His sense of urgency helped transform what would usually be a casual non-conference game into a must-win affair.

“Sometimes in mid-weeks, people have their minds somewhere else, whether it’s school and a test,” senior outfielder Brant Cavagnaro said. “He tried really hard to keep us focused today and keep us energetic because we need that win to keep going into Big Tens with a good taste in our mouths.”

The victory also was a nice bit of revenge after UIC topped NU 6-3 approximately one month ago.

“They got us pretty good at the beginning of the year,” Cavagnaro said. “We know with our team, if we played our game that they weren’t going to beat us.”

The Cats also received a spark on the mound, as junior right-hander Francis Brooke made his first start in more than a month after sustaining an injury earlier this season. Although he said he still isn’t 100 percent, he was able to hold the Flames in check, surrendering just an unearned run in five innings of work.

“It’s always nice to pitch, to throw a few innings, to get into the flow of the game,” Brooke said. “(My stuff) was better than normal but still not quite as good as I want.”

Trailing 1-0 entering the bottom of the fifth, NU scored two runs to put Brooke in position to earn his first win of the season. The Cats scored two runs on an RBI groundout and a hit batsman.

Brooke’s first victory remained in doubt, particularly when righty Ethan Bramschreiber began the sixth by surrendering three consecutive singles to load the bases. The freshman was able to escape with just one run allowed as he induced a double play to end the inning.

NU quickly retook the lead, as Cavagnaro led off the sixth inning with a pinch-hit single and scored on a sacrifice bunt by pinch-hitter Colby Everett.

Cavagnaro’s contribution was a pleasant surprise since the senior has received few opportunities at the plate this season.

“We haven’t had mid-week games for two weeks so those guys have been shortchanged,” Stevens said. “Based on that, I was really proud of the way they came through today.”

In his second at-bat, Cavagnaro drove a ball all the way to the outfield wall, but was thrown out at second base.

“He just smoked it,” Stevens said. “The only problem is he still can’t run very well, but it’s good to see him swinging the bat like that.”

Freshman reliever Jack Quigley ran into some trouble in the eighth inning, surrendering singles to two of the first three batters he faced, but the sidewinder worked his way out of the frame with no further damage, thus giving freshman reliever Kyle Ruchim a chance to earn his second save of the season.

The rookie complied, throwing 11 of 12 pitches for strikes to seal the victory.

“He’s not scared,” Brooke said. “He goes right after it.”

After a successful return to the starting rotation, Brooke might be making a more important start Sunday, in a critical Big Ten matchup versus Michigan.

A matchup with the Wolverines would come one week after Stevens declined to use Brooke against Indiana.

“I wanted to put him in a situation where he could create his own atmosphere instead of having to join someone else’s picture,” Stevens said.

With Brooke back in the picture for the Cats, the team suddenly has a much more stable vision for its starting rotation.

“That’s been a killer for us losing him,” Stevens said. “It was bad enough losing (starting pitcher) Zach Morton. It was good to see (Brooke) get out there.”

With their old pitcher back in tow, the Cats now have another chance to build energy going into this weekend’s home series against Michigan. NU will host the University of Chicago on Wednesday.

And if high-fives and yelling are what it takes to coax further victories out of his team, Stevens is prepared to stretch his vocal cords once more.

“I wanted a little more energy today and that starts at the top,” Stevens said. “If I can sit there and go through some of the things I was going through today then so be it. If that’s what I have to do, then I’ll continue to do it all week.”

j[email protected]