Northwestern’s weekend series against Michigan State, won by the Spartans, started off with a split doubleheader on Friday. The Wildcats (17-25, 6-9 B1G) lost the first game 8-1 to the Spartans (23-17, 7-8 B1G), but rallied to win the second 3-2.
For the past few series, senior outfielder Joe Hoscheit was the player who made everything fall into place for the ‘Cats. Last weekend against Penn State he scored three runs and racked up six RBI, which led to his second consecutive Big Ten Player of the Week Award. Despite Hoscheit’s efforts, coach Spencer Allen said earlier in the week that the team needed more players consistently contributing and “another unsung hero to really step up.”
Freshmen Alex Erro and Hank Christie were the heroes Allen was looking for. Erro went 4-8 on the day and scored in each game, tallying the winning run in game two. Christie started on the mound in game two and threw four strikeouts and only allowed four hits.
“Today I was more aggressive than I have been,” Christie said after the game. “I was focusing on throwing the ball harder. I lost some control, but it all worked out.”
Cooper Wetherbee was the Wildcats’ starting pitcher in game one, and he tallied a career high six strikeouts in 5.1 innings. He held the Spartans scoreless, but the ‘Cats got their one-run lead taken away when MSU scored three runs in the sixth inning after Wetherbe was taken out.
Christie took note of the Spartans’ offensive strategy and tailored his strategy to what he saw. When they scored eight runs in the final four innings of game one, he knew that in order to successfully start game two he would need to disrupt their rhythm.
“These guys were really aggressive - they like to swing at everything, so you could make more pitcher’s pitches,” he said.
The first three innings of game two were scoreless, but in the bottom of the fourth, junior Jack Claeys drove a hit to left field, which allowed Hoscheit and Matt Hopfner to find home plate.
“The hit was huge,” Allen said. “Laying off the 2-2 count, they threw a break ball. He laid off that to get the 3-2, where we could get the runners in motion. Coach Napoleon sending them [home] was a big play for us.”
Michigan State didn’t score until the sixth inning, but a run in the seventh tied it up at 2-2. A single by Hopfner scored Erro in the bottom of the eighth to put the ‘Cats on top.
The game two win was essential for Northwestern, as they only have three Big Ten series left in the regular season. Only the top eight teams in the conference advance to the Big Ten Tournament, and NU is currently tied with Michigan state for ninth. Allen noted that the ‘Cats are running out of time to make a run, but that racking up a win was essential.
“It was a must win - it really was, when we’re talking about trying to win series and in Big Ten play,” he said. “We lost some opportunities early, and we don’t have many opportunities to give away. I’m proud of the guys and that when we got some good spots, we took advantage.”
For four innings Saturday, the game was close.
But the fifth inning brought rain, and with the rain came the thunderous Spartan offense.
Backed by six runs in the fifth frame and five more over the final three, Michigan State (23-17, 7-8 B1G) pounded Northwestern (17-25, 6-9 B1G) 13-5 in Saturday morning’s series finale. The series victory vaults the Spartans into eighth place in the Big Ten in a sport where only the top eight teams make the Big Ten Tournament – while the Wildcats slide to 10th place with only nine conference games remaining.
The Spartans broke through first in the third inning on a 2-RBI single from cleanup hitter Matt Byars. The Wildcats, however, were given a perfect opportunity to bounce back in the bottom half when pitches bounced off both Connor Lind and Jake Schieber, giving the ‘Cats two baserunners with no outs. A passed ball moved both runners up a space, and Lind scored on a groundout by Jack Dunn, and Schieber joined him after a single from Joe Hoscheit.
Northwestern starting pitcher Matt Gannon, coming off a strong outing against Penn State, was fairly controlled through four innings, but once things moved to the fifth, the wheels fell off.
With one out in the frame, back-to-back doubles from Bryce Kelley and Brandon Hughes set the Spartans up with runners on second and third, prompting Spencer Allen to replace Gannon with Josh Levy. Levy had had the team’s best ERA entering the weekend, but he didn’t have whatever had been fueling his excellent freshman season on this day.
Levy walked the first batter he faced to load the bases with only one out. That brought up Byars, who delivered again with a single to right to drive in a run and give the Spartans the lead. Levy struck out the next batter but hit the following one to drive in another run and keep the bases juiced. Royce Ando pounced on the opportunity, lacing a pitch back up the middle to score two more. The Spartans tacked on one more before Levy got Zack McGuire to strikeout to end the inning, but the Wildcats would never recover.
In the seventh, Byars kicked things off with a double to left, and eventually scored on a wild pitch. Dan Chmielewski also scored on a wild pitch, and Ando scored when a blast of a shot off the bat of Bechina was too hot for third baseman Connor Lind to handle. Levy got two strikeouts to end the inning, but not before the Spartans had added three more runs.
Spartan starter Andrew Gonzalez didn’t pitch awfully, but was pulled after three innings of work in favor of Ethan Landon, who allowed only four hits and three runs in five innings. Two of those hits, and all three RBI, came courtesy of Leo Kaplan. Kaplan scored Willie Bourbon on a single in the sixth before blasting his fourth career homer, a two-run shot, in the eighth.
Time is running out for the Wildcats to sneak into the Big Ten Tournament. These losses don’t eliminate them, but they certainly hurt their chances; Northwestern has nine conference games remaining, ten overall, and all of them are against teams currently ahead of them in the conference. First up, however, is a midweek matchup against Notre Dame on Tuesday.