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Baseball: NU sweeps Michigan in weather-shortened series

Matt Forman

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Paul Stevens didn’t want to speak with reporters Friday after Northwestern’s series-opening 7-1 victory over Michigan. The coach didn’t want his players talking either.

“Come talk to me Sunday after we get a sweep,” said Stevens, who normally addresses the media after each home game. “I’m putting a gag order on until then. Let the games speak for themselves.”

This wasn’t Stevens being cocky. This was Stevens simply suggesting the Wildcats were on a mission. “Just silent but deadly,” he said.

There was no need to talk about individual accomplishments when the team had a greater task: After losing its last three conference series, NU needed to win nearly all of its remaining games to make the Big Ten Tournament.

Come Sunday, Stevens had a different tone than earlier in the weekend. There was plenty to talk about. The Cats pulled off their first conference series sweep since 2007, brushing aside the Wolverines.

“I don’t think there’s a guy that puts on a uniform and doesn’t think he’s going to win, but it’s a feeling and an attitude, and I had a lot of really positive feelings,” Stevens said. “You saw the results of it, that’s for sure, and there’s a lot of putting your arms around everybody’s shoulders and getting excited.”

But the “sweep” comes with a caveat – it was only two games. Inclement weather forced Sunday’s finale to be canceled, and it won’t be replayed.

“It’s kind of disappointing that we didn’t get a chance to play (Sunday), but we’ve just got to move on to our next scenario,” Stevens said. “It means we’ve got to go to Michigan State next weekend and play our tails off.”

Sophomore ace Luke Farrell set the tone for the weekend on Friday, opening the series with a gritty seven-inning, six-hit performance. The right-hander didn’t have his best stuff – he allowed the leadoff man to reach base in all but one inning – but he worked out of jams and kept the Wolverines off balance, outlasting Michigan starter Brandon Sinnery.

While Farrell usually relies on his fastball and curveball for strikeouts, the sophomore turned to his changeup on Friday to keep Michigan on its toes.

“Talking with (pitching coach Tim) Stoddard about it, just talking about the game and everything that transpired, the way he termed it is this: That’s what pitching is all about. You kind of have to go with what’s working that day, ” Farrell said. “It’s not always going to be the same.”

Farrell and Sinnery were locked in a pitcher’s duel until the seventh inning, when one swing of the bat changed the game’s complexion. Sinnery was lifted in the bottom of the sixth with the bases loaded in a 3-1 game, and junior first baseman Paul Snieder greeted reliever Tyler Mills with a first-pitch, no-doubt-about-it grand slam that bounced off Welsh-Ryan Arena beyond the right-field fence.

“The only thing I told (Snieder) was, ‘He’s going to try to get ahead, and if he does, make sure you’re on time.’ He was,” Stevens said. “He’s the one who has to see the pitch, he’s the one who has to make the identification and he’s the one that has to deliver the blow. He did all of that.”

Senior third baseman Chris Lashmet and Snieder powered NU’s offense all weekend. The No. 2 and 3 hitters in the lineup went a combined 10-for-16 with three doubles, a home run and 9 RBIs.

“It’s probably pretty tough for opposing pitchers (when we’re both hitting) because you can’t really pitch around us,” Snieder said.

The Cats continued their offensive barrage on Saturday, stroking a season-second-best 20 hits to back junior righty Michael Jahns, who pitched into the sixth inning. Jahns turned in arguably his best outing of the year, giving up five hits and one earned run while striking out seven.

“We’ve seen some guys stumble in the first or second inning and give up some crooked numbers, but let’s talk about what it took for him to get to the sixth inning,” Stevens said. “He didn’t give in, and he didn’t give up. He kept battling.”

With Jahns throwing a heavy dose of breaking balls and Farrell using his changeup, junior catcher Geoff Rowan blocked one pitch in the dirt after another.

“Geoff Rowan stepped up so big,” Stevens said. “The guy was a human vacuum cleaner back there, whether he was sucking it up or knocking it down.”

Rowan also helped control the base paths, keeping Michigan from running as much as it would like. The Wolverines lead the Big Ten in stolen bases, and Rowan threw out three would-be base-stealers on Friday.

And then on Saturday, Rowan went 2-for-5 with 3 RBIs. His day at the plate included a perfectly placed sacrifice bunt and a ball hit on the ground to the right side with the infield back to knock in a run.

Stevens said Rowan’s good weekend stemmed from “a serious talk” he had with the backstop.

“I kind of put it in a nutshell, to the point, with some bullet points, that I was hoping would penetrate his flesh a little bit. He took the conversation to heart, and he had a great weekend,” Stevens said. “I wanted to get him to understand how good he really is and how good he can be and what he means to this pitching staff and what he means to all of us. He’s a person that’s got to take control and take charge.”

The pair of wins over Michigan extended NU’s season-best winning streak to four games, and with the way the Cats are playing, Sunday’s canceled contest could have extended the streak to five. But everything is clicking at the right time for the Cats, who have one Big Ten weekend series left against first-place Michigan State.

“Even though it’s another bump in the road, they still have the ability to do some things to help them find a way to go where they want to go,” Stevens said. “What they did this past week is hopefully a taste of what they’ll continue to do this weekend and what I believe they’ll do this weekend.”

matthewforman2007@u.northwestern.edu

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