Injury is just a pessimist’s word for opportunity. Just ask Ohio State University and Cardale Jones, who rose from the obscure ranks of third string quarterbacks to National Championship Game hero and NFL draft prospect after stars Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett went down in succession. Injuries can reap careers and plant playoff seeds.
So even as the Wildcats' leading hitter Kyle Ruchim watched an eleventh straight game from the bench and Northwestern’s Big Ten tournament hopes slipped away in a rain-trodden two-out-of-three series defeat to Michigan (31-21, 14-10 B1G), sophomore R.J. Watters may have given the Wildcats (16-35, 6-15 B1G) a reason to hope.
Watters went 2-3 as one of the lone bright spots in Friday’s 12-4 loss twice delayed by rain. He then slashed another two singles to pace Saturday’s 9-8 victory.
Ruchim’s oblique strain has opened the first opportunity for Watters. After collecting 3 hits on just 19 at bats his freshman season, the fleet-footed outfielder is hitting .381 in 42 sophomore tries.
However, in game three against Michigan on Sunday, both the ‘Cats' bats and arms failed them. They fell 19-1 in their worst defeat of the season.
Senior Mike Trucco, who entered Friday with just 51 at bats over four seasons with the ‘Cats, was the only other silver lining besides Watters in game one. Trucco pinch-hit and homered over the left-field fence, but starter Brandon Magallones surrendered five earned runs over five innings and Michigan scored six runs after a sixth-inning rain delay to take home a 12-4 victory.
Saturday, the Wildcats came from behind for a 9-8 victory. Watters and freshman Connor Lind flashed the potential of Northwestern baseball getting two hits each, while senior Scott Heelan continued his strong finish to his college career with two of his own. All three added two RBIs and two runs scored.
With his college career drawing to a close, Heelan has shown determination despite Northwestern’s struggles. Saturday’s performance extended his hitting streak to six games, over which he went 11-24 (.458 Batting average) with six runs, four RBIs, and his first home run of the season.
But both Heelan’s and Watters' streak grinded to a halt Sunday beneath the weight of Michigan ace Nate Adcock’s fastball. Adcock, ranked by D1Baseball.com as the third-best prospect in the Big Ten for the 2016 MLB draft, held Northwestern to one run on four hits through six innings. The Wildcat pen was as wild on the mound as Adcock was sharp, walking 5 batters and surrendering 14 of Michigan’s 19 runs, including nine runs in the sixth and one sequence in the eighth where Evan Schreiber hit three batters in a row, each time with the bases loaded.
The series loss dropped Northwestern to five games out of eighth place in the conference and, with just three games remaining, mathematically eliminated them from the Big Ten Tournament. The 'Cats return home next Friday to wrap up their season with a three game series against Maryland.