Baseball: Northwestern’s up-and-down stretch ends with losses to Nebraska

Northwestern second baseman Kyle Ruchim leads the team with a .464 batting average. However, the Wildcats were swept over the weekend by Nebraska.

Daily file photo by Susan Du

Northwestern second baseman Kyle Ruchim leads the team with a .464 batting average. However, the Wildcats were swept over the weekend by Nebraska.

Alex Putterman, Reporter

In March, Northwestern played 131 innings across 13 games over 24 days, experiencing all the requisite ups and downs during this microcosm of a baseball season.

The 6-7 stretch took the Wildcats (10-9, 2-4 Big Ten) to Missouri, then Florida, back to Illinois and eventually to Lincoln, Neb., where they lost three straight games.

“Us as a team have to get better,” coach Paul Stevens said. “We have to do a better dang job on the mound, we have to do a better job in the field, and we have to start swinging the bat.”

The rough stretch began March 8, when NU returned to the diamond after nearly two weeks off to commence a three-game set with Missouri State. In a series of well-pitched games, the Cats were swept, outscored 12-8 on the weekend.

But at the three-day Central Florida Invitational starting March 14, the Cats beat LIU Brooklyn 12-3, topped North Dakota State 3-2  in 11 innings the next day and then shellacked Bucknell 17-2.

During the three-game winning streak, the Cats’ trio of starters — Zach Morton, Brandon Magallones and team strikeout leader Luke Farrell — combined to allow only 3 earned runs over 21 innings pitched.

“We’re throwing strikes,” Magallones said. “Luke is K-ing people up, and it’s great to see that. He’s throwing really well, his stuff is really working, guys are not hitting it. Zach and I, we feel like we’re just staying in the strike zone and having hitters get themselves out.”

The success on the hill continued a week later, when NU began its Big Ten season with three games against Iowa in Carol Stream, Ill. In the series opener, Cats senior first baseman Jack Havey’s walk-off single in the 13th inning gave NU another extra-inning victory, and after Farrell and the Cats dropped the second game 2-1, Magallones led NU to a 5-1 triumph in the finale.

After a 3-1 victory over Chicago State on March 27, in which freshman hurler Matt Portland earned his first career win, NU had allowed only 12 runs in seven games over the previous two weeks and had gone nine straight without giving up more than 3 runs.

“Our starting pitching has been excellent this year,” junior second baseman Kyle Ruchim said. “We’ve been part of every game because of them, and we’ve been competing to the end because of our pitching staff as a whole.”

Run prevention was more of a struggle in the ensuing weekend series in Nebraska.

NU’s first game against the Cornhuskers quickly became a slugfest and slowly became an epic. Morton allowed three runs, two of them earned, in the first inning, but the Cats came back to lead 7-3 and 8-4. Nebraska tallied four runs in the seventh inning to knot the score, then both teams scored once in the ninth, mandating extra frames.

As midnight approached, The Huskers finally finished the lengthy affair with a walk-off single in the bottom of the 16th, concluding, at 5 hours and 16 minutes, the longest game of coach Paul Stevens’ 26-year NU career.

“You tell me that that’s not an emotional roller coaster,” Stevens said. “I’m not going to sit there and tell you there isn’t going to be some kind of emotional drain, but, holy smokes, that’s what baseball is. Baseball is a lot of emotion, it’s a lot of mental.”

The Huskers defeated the Cats 8-5 on Saturday and 8-6 on Sunday to end NU’s spring break on a bad note.