For all his records and exploits over 19 major league seasons, Red Sox Hall of Famer Ted Williams may be best known for how he ended his career: with a homer in his final at bat at age 41. This weekend against Maryland, home at Rocky Miller Park, ten Northwestern seniors and a junior did their best imitation.
In its final three games of the season, Northwestern baseball (18-36, 8-16 B1G) earned its second series victory. They thumped the visiting Maryland Terrapins (36-20, 14-10 B1G) Thursday and Friday, as a handful of Wildcats turned their last games in purple into some of the best of their college careers.
On Thursday, it was senior ace Brandon Magallones, the Wildcats’ most tenured starter, leveraging his last career start into his first complete game shutout. He needed just 91 pitches to neutralize the Big Ten’s highest scoring offense, surrendering but two singles and striking out seven. Magallones finished the year seventh in the Big Ten with 67 punchouts after pacing the conference in 2014, saying he felt "a little bit of excitement, a little bit of nostalgia.”
"I’ve been a starting pitcher here for four years," Magallones said. "You know it’s my last [start] here, so I just wanted to make it a good one.”
Although he's a junior, Matt Portland entered Friday’s contest with the same jumble of emotions. Friday was likely his last college start. After a season in which he led Wildcat starters in strikeouts, ERA and innings pitched, the southpaw has emerged as a prospect for Major League Baseball’s June draft. He should be taken “somewhere in the low teen (rounds),” according to head coach Paul Stevens.
If any major league teams had lingering doubts, Portland silenced them along with the Terrapins lineup. The lefthander held Maryland to two runs (one earned) over seven frames en route to a 3-2 victory. Portland struck out a career high nine batters before he handed the ball off to fellow lefthander Jake Stolley in the eighth. The Wildcat closer was untouchable – “spec-tac-ul-ar,” as coach Stevens would say later, stretching out each syllable for emphasis – for two frames, sending three Terrapins down looking on fastballs, before coaxing the final batter to whiff on a change-up down and out of the zone.
After missing 12 games with injuries, fifth-year senior Kyle Ruchim returned to the lineup, and along with two other fifth-year seniors, led the offensive charge. Shortstop Cody Stevens pushed across the go-ahead run with a sixth inning single and catcher Scott Heelan collected two hits.
Heelan finished his Northwestern career with a .333 average and scored nine runs in his final nine games.
Junior starter Reed Mason matched Magallones and Portland on Saturday, firing seven shutout frames, but Maryland rallied for four runs in the eighth to take the final game of the series 4-3.
It was a sour end to a triumphant series, but even the best moments this weekend were tinged bittersweet. Not only were these the last games for at least ten players, but after 31 seasons with the Wildcats, nearly 650 wins, and 65 professional players coached, Coach Stevens retired Saturday. Gratitude for their longtime mentor gave the Wildcats the motivation to pull out a series win over a third-place Maryland club, even after they were eliminated from playoff contention last week.
“We always wanted to send him off right,” Scott Heelan said. “Unfortunately, the beginning half didn’t go as we wanted but we were able to hopefully send him off on a great note here, and no one deserves it more."