With senior Kyle Ruchim still nursing an oblique strain, two Northwestern pitchers and its fifth-year senior catcher tried to pick up the slack against Nebraska this weekend, but were ultimately unsuccessful, as the Cornhuskers took two games in the three-game series.
Senior Brandon Magallones struck out a season-high eight batters Friday and junior Matt Portland threw his first career complete game shutout Saturday, but it wasn’t enough to overcome a stripped down Wildcat lineup, as Northwestern dropped the first and third games of the series to the Huskers.
“You can never replace a player like Kyle Ruchim,” Coach Paul Stevens said. “That’s like trying to replace a Derek Jeter.”
Taking Ruchim’s spot at the top of the order, fifth-year senior Scott Heelan tried his best. A .324 hitter on the year, Heelan collected two hits and two runs in Northwestern’s Saturday game and he finished the series 4-for-12, with two runs and and an RBI.
Fresh off a start in which he surrendered seven runs, senior pitcher Brandon Magallones struggled early again Friday. But the righthander negotiated his way out of a jam in the first and settled down to throw eight innings of three run ball in one of his best starts of the season.
Northwestern fell 4-2, however, as Cornhuskers' ace Chance Sinclair held a weakened Wildcats lineup to zero earned runs.
Magallones’ performance inspired Junior Matt Portland, who made sure two runs would be more than enough Saturday. The lefthander allowed 11 hits – all singles – but still gave the Wildcats their first shutout victory of the year. Junior Jack Mitchell, senior Reid Hunter and sophomore Joe Hoscheit strung together three straight doubles in the sixth to propel Northwestern to a 5-0 win.
“Brandon and I are big competitors and neither of us want to take second to either one,” Portland said.
After brief showings as a freshman and sophomore, Portland has quietly emerged as Northwestern’s ace in 2015. The left-hander is 2-6 but leads all Wildcat starters in ERA (3.81) and innings pitched (78.0), and now has a complete game under his belt.
Junior starter Reed Mason was unable to replicate his teammates’ success on the mound in game three. Mason surrendered five earned runs over three innings and the bullpen let up six more as the Cornhuskers took an 11-0 victory.
Still, the bleeding may have been worse if it weren’t for a strong Wildcat defensive effort. In the first, second baseman Antonio Freschet snared a line drive to turn a Nebraska hit-and-run into an unassisted double play. Center fielder Matt Hopfner, filling in for Ruchim, twice crashed into the wall in left center to steal a pair of potential extra base hits from the cornhuskers.
Stevens said he was impressed by Hopfner and the rest of the Wildcats' ability to step up when needed to most.
“I think it [speaks to] intestinal fortitude,” Stevens said. “I think there are a lot of guys and there’s lot of young guys. There’s people who find ways to make plays, RJ Watters, was another one that made plays, that got base hits.”
Watters, a sophomore, played center for Ruchim in game one, making only the fourth start of his college career. He went 2-4 and is now hitting .333 on the year.
The Wildcats begin a two game series against Kansas Tuesday before they take on Michigan in Ann Arbor on Friday. Currently tied for 10th place, the Wildcats need to improve to eighth to earn a bid to the Big Ten Tournament. They sit three games back as of Sunday.