Baseball: Tough loss costs Wildcats series with Illinois

Alex Putterman, Reporter

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It was one step forward, two steps back for Northwestern in Champaign this weekend.

NU (18-17, 7-11) lost the last two matches of a three-game set with Illinois (26-13, 8-7), dealing a major blow to the Wildcats’ postseason hopes.

With the series tied 1-1 and NU leading the third game 3-1 in the seventh inning, a successful weekend looked nearly secure — then came a 4-run Illinois rally. When the Fighting Illini were done with their half of the seventh inning, the Cats trailed 5-3.

Six NU outs later, the team was headed home with a crushing series defeat.

“I’m not happy with that,” coach Paul Stevens said.  “Not at all. We definitely played a lot better than 1-2. (We) just didn’t execute in some scenarios.”

Before it went sour, the trip to Champaign began triumphantly Friday.

Senior Luke Farrell, six days removed from his complete game shutout at Wrigley Field, threw eight innings, allowing 4 hits and 3 walks while striking out 5, and handed junior closer Kyle Ruchim a 2-1 lead entering the ninth.

But Illinois then tied the game after redshirt senior Trevor Stevens launched his first home run of the season to lead off the 10th and staved off defeat for the second straight inning, again knotting the score off Ruchim.

After two quaint, run-less innings, senior Jack Havey stepped to the plate with one out in the top of the 13th.

The first baseman jacked an inside fastball over the left-field fence for a go-ahead home run, the latest in a string of extra-inning heroics from Havey.

“It’s the same approach every time I go up to bat,” he said. “I would definitely not say that anything changes (in clutch situations). It’s just that some of them happen to come in the 13th innings.”

The Cats held on to win the first game, but the celebration didn’t last long. NU managed only three runs Saturday, despite 13 hits, in a 12-3 blowout. Cats starter Brandon Magallones struggled, allowing 10 hits in 5 innings, and NU committed 5 errors in the field, resulting in 5 unearned runs.

The Cats could have salvaged the weekend Sunday, but Illinois’ late-inning rally torched their hopes.

The series loss keeps the Cats in eighth place in the Big Ten, with their hopes of finishing in the top six and qualifying for the conference tournament dwindling. Only six Big Ten games remain for NU to catch Illinois (8-7) and Michigan State (7-5). 

“We’re not mathematically out of anything yet,” Paul Stevens said. “I’m not counting us out of anything. We’ve just made it a little bit more difficult.”

Trevor Stevens’ hitting was a silver lining for NU. The shortstop was the lone NU player to record multiple hits Wednesday in a 5-0 loss to Wisconsin-Milwaukee and said afterward he hoped the hits were the beginning of a turnaround from a season-long slump at the plate.

A good game became a hot streak when Trevor Stevens went 9-for-15 on the weekend to lift his batting average from the depths of the .200s to .273.

Trevor Stevens said he and his coach had analyzed what he had been doing well and not well and made changes accordingly. Nevertheless, the redshirt senior, who always says he just wants to help the team win, said the Cats’ goal against Illinois had been to “win this series and try and take three.”

“If a play goes differently here and there then we come out of the weekend with a totally different record,” Trevor Stevens said. “Obviously guys would be a lot happier if we would have taken the series, but we’re pretty good at what we do next.”