Out of nowhere, Northwestern baseball is winning, relevant and playing for a championship. After a pretty mediocre regular season (going 24-28), it looked like the 7-seed ‘Cats had improved from last season but had not yet made “the leap.”
However, they snuck into the Big Ten tournament and snagged surprising wins over Michigan and Minnesota to land a date with Maryland. Thanks to Big Ten’s complicated double-elimination rules, if NU lost, they played UMD again; if they won either in the first game or in the second after losing, they reached the title game (spoiler: they reached the title game). They fell to Maryland 9-5 in the first game, but they topped the Terps 6-5 in the rematch, giving them a chance to win their first ever Big Ten Tournament.
In game one against Maryland, UMD jumped to a 3-0 lead on three solo homers early against pitcher Josh Davis. The ‘Cats finally struck back in the fourth when Connor Lind hit a ground-rule double to left to score a run. NU added two more in the fourth to tie the game, and Joe Hoescheit continued to mash in the fifth, hitting a two-run homer to give Northwestern a 5-3 lead.
Unfortunately, it didn’t last. After giving up two hits, Davis was pulled without recording an out in the fifth. Tommy Bordigon came in and quickly gave up two runs on a passed ball and a single. Two other pitchers had to come in to stop the bleeding, but NU eventually escaped without giving up any more runs.
After a couple scoreless frames, Maryland broke the game open in the bottom of the seventh. Two singles and a walk loaded the bases for the Terrapins against pitcher Josh Levy, and Levy hit A.J. Lee to give Maryland the lead back. J.R. Reimer then came in to pitch, and it didn’t go much better: a walk, a sac fly and a fielder’s choice RBI later, it was 9-5 Maryland, and the game was out of reach for NU.
Fortunately, it’s a double elimination tournament.
In game two Sunday morning, Cooper Wetherbee took the mound in a do-or-die game for the ‘Cats. This time, it was Northwestern jumping to a 3-0 lead: Jack Claeys launched a three-run shot in the bottom of the first to take the lead. The line kept moving in the second when Jack Dunn drove in two more with a single and Matt Hopfner singled home Dunn. It was 6-0 ‘Cats, and with Wetherbee dealing on the mound, things looked good.
In the seventh, Maryland finally started to cause Wetherbee some trouble. Spencer Allen brought in Pete Hofman after Wetherbee gave up a single and a walk. Wetherbee, though, was masterful: he finished with 9 strikeouts over 6.2 innings, giving up just 3 hits and two runs. Hofman walked a batter, then UMD first baseman Brandon Gum launched one over the center field fence. Just like that, a six-run lead was cut to just two.
The ‘Cats offense remained quiet, and Maryland added another run in the eighth when Sam Lawrence walked home a run. However, a huge inning-ending double play in the eighth and a scoreless ninth gave him the save and gave the Wildcats a historic win.
Northwestern faces Iowa in the championship game, and a win guarantees them a spot in the NCAA tournament, which they haven’t mad since 1957. Regardless of what happens, Northwestern’s run so far has been nothing short of magical.