On a chilly Tuesday afternoon at Rocky Miller Park, the Northwestern baseball team (11-25, 4-10 Big Ten) stayed hot with a 7-5 win over the Wheaton Thunder (18-13, 8-7 CCIW).
The ‘Cats returned to Evanston after winning four of five on their recent road trip, which consisted of a two-game sweep against Chicago State and a three-game set against Nebraska, in which only a narrow 10-9 loss in the series finale prevented Northwestern from sweeping the series.
Despite the recent loss, the ‘Cats rolled into their matchup against Wheaton with a bit of momentum, a concept that has been rather foreign to a team that experienced its first winning streak of more than two games just this past week. Meanwhile, Wheaton headed into the game on a run of its own, riding a three-game winning streak after sweeping Millikin University on the road. In a clash between two hot teams, something had to give.
In an effort to continue his team’s momentum, Northwestern coach Paul Stevens sent right-hander Nick Friar to the hill. Friar, who had posted a 5.86 ERA coming into the game, made just his second start of the season on Tuesday, but he looked like a seasoned veteran, pitching six strong innings while allowing just one earned run, along with eight strikeouts.
Wheaton got on the board first thanks to a defensive miscue by the ‘Cats, something that would prove to be a theme of the game. With runners on first and second and one away in the top of the first inning, cleanup hitter Trey Martin hit a ground ball that had the makings of an inning-ending double play. Instead, a throwing error by second baseman Scott Heelan allowed Wheaton leadoff hitter Josh Kimmel to score the game’s first run.
The ‘Cats countered with a run of their own in the bottom half of the inning on an RBI single by cleanup hitter Zach Jones, but they weren’t done.
After a scoreless top half of the second, Northwestern put runners on second and third and one out in the bottom half. Third baseman Nick Linne then smashed a single through the left side, plating left fielder Jack Mitchell with the go-ahead run. Two batters later, shortstop Cody Stevens followed up a walk to leadoff hitter Walker Moses with an RBI fielder’s choice, giving the ‘Cats a 3-1 edge after two innings.
From there, Friar put together a couple of shutdown innings on the mound, getting ahead in counts with well-located fastballs and mixing in his off-speed pitches effectively. But in the top of the fourth, the ‘Cats starter ran into a bit of trouble. A leadoff double by Wheaton’s No. 3 hitter, Justin Swider, followed by an RBI single from third baseman John Jensen-Johnson and a passed ball by catcher Jake Straub ultimately gave the Thunder a pair of runs and tied the game at three.
Once again, the Northwestern offense came through in the bottom of the inning, thanks to an RBI single by Stevens. That gave the ‘Cats a 4-3 edge, but more defensive issues ensured the lead wouldn’t last for long.
In the top of the sixth inning, with a runner on first and two outs, Wheaton catcher Taylor Howe reached on an error by Linne, keeping the inning alive. Right fielder Johnny Peltz followed that play up with an RBI single, again tying the game.
The game headed to the bottom of the sixth inning with the scored tied at four, but in a back-and-forth contest, it was only fitting that the ‘Cats would reclaim the lead … again.
Designated hitter Mike Trucco started off the frame with a sharp ground ball down the third-base line that stayed fair by mere inches, good for a leadoff double. Then, after a bunt single by Linne and a sacrifice fly by Moses, the ‘Cats had taken back the lead again. Northwestern didn’t stop there. Stevens recorded his third hit of the game following the Moses’ sac fly, putting runners on first and third. Then, with Heelan batting, Stevens broke for second base. Howe threw down to second, giving Linne the opportunity to steal home as he slid just under the return throw to the plate.
That was the third time Northwestern responded to a Wheaton score in the top half of the inning with a score of its own in the bottom half-the third time proved to be the charm. Right-hander Joe Hoscheit replaced Friar on the mound, and promptly retired the side on seven pitches in the top of the seventh. But once again, Northwestern’s defense came up short in the top of the eighth, allowing another unearned run behind a pair of key errors, the fourth and fifth miscues by the ‘Cats in the field.
Nevertheless, Hoscheit managed to hold Wheaton to just one run in the inning, and reliever Jack Quigley came on in the ninth to shut down the Thunder and give Northwestern a 7-5 victory.
The Wildcats will face Chicago State Wednesday at 3 p.m. at Rocky Miller Park as they’ll look to win their sixth game in seven tries.