This weekend’s Northwestern-Purdue baseball series featured pretty much everything: a rout, a marathon pitcher’s duel and a slugfest. But, most importantly, it featured a Northwestern series win.
The Wildcats scored five runs in the first three innings Friday to back pitcher Cooper Wetherbee in a 7-2 victory. Saturday’s game took 12 innings to decide a winner, but ultimately Purdue levelled the series on a walk-off double for a 2-1 win. In Sunday’s all-important rubber match, Alex Erro homered and drove in four runs and the Wildcats struck for two runs in the sixth to claim an 8-7 win and clinch the series.
Northwestern (19-27, 8-10 B1G) entered the weekend a few games out of eighth place in the Big Ten – only eight teams make the conference tournament – and thanks to its series win and a series loss by Michigan State, the Wildcats exit the weekend tied with the Spartans for that final spot.
Northwestern kicked things off perfectly on Friday. Joe Hoscheit doubled in a run and scored to key a four-run first inning. The ‘Cats added another run in the third on a sacrifice bunt from Connor Lind. The Boilermakers (26-21, 10-8 B1G) got two back in the bottom half of the frame as Evan Warden singled home a run and scored on a sac fly, but the Wildcats would not permit any more to score. Instead, they scored two more of their own in the eighth when Leo Kaplan doubled home a run and scored on another sac bunt to clinch a 7-2 Northwestern victory.
Kaplan led Northwestern with three hits in four at-bats, and Jake Schieber drove in two runs, but the combination of Cooper Wetherbee and Pete Hofman proved too much for the Boilers to overcome. Wetherbee allowed just the two runs in six innings on only two hits with five strikeouts. Hofman was masterful, pitching the final three innings to tally the save, allowing just one hit with three punchouts.
Saturday’s game needed three more innings than Friday’s, but six fewer runs were scored, as both sides featured a pair of pitchers who were proved nearly insoluble. Purdue struck first off of Hank Christie in the fifth when Harry Shipley singled home Milo Beam. Northwestern equalized in the eighth as Jack Claeys ripped a double that scored Jack Dunn. Nobody could score against a pair of lethal relievers until the bottom of the 12th as Alec Olund popped a double to left, scoring Hayden Grant and giving the Boilermakers a 2-1 win.
It was truly a pitching clinic. Gareth Stroh got the start for Purdue and went 7.1 innings, allowing just the one earned run with five strikeouts. Hank Christie one-upped him though, surrendering just the one unearned run in eight excellent innings. But once Stroh came out, things only got tougher for the Wildcats, as they had to face elite reliever Ross Learnard, who permitted just three hits in his 4.1 innings of work. Northwestern countered with its own high-leverage reliever in Sam Lawrence, who proved his worth by escaping from multiple jams in extra innings. He allowed only three hits, but one of them was Olund’s game-winner.
The third game of the series was quite different than the second. Hoscheit kicked things off again with an RBI double in the first, but Purdue got back two of its own in the bottom of the frame to take a 2-1 lead. It wouldn’t last long, as Alex Erro launched his third career home run over the right field wall to give NU a 4-2 lead in the second.
The middle innings proved turbulent: Purdue scored three runs in the third to regain a 5-4 lead, but a two-run double from Jack Dunn in the fourth reestablished a Northwestern advantage. Undeterred, Purdue struck for two more in the fifth. But the Wildcats had the last laugh in the sixth – with two men on, Erro singled up the middle to score both runners. The 8-7 lead was all the Northwestern bullpen needed to give the ‘Cats the series win.
Erro drove in four runs on three hits and scored twice in the victory. Hoscheit went 4-for-5, increasing his team-best batting average to .333, and Ben Dickey reached four times and scored thrice. On the mound, Tyler Lass turned in perhaps his best relief outing of the season, going 2.2 innings, permitting just one hit and one walk and recording the win. Hofman pitched a scoreless final 1.1 innings to record his second save in three days.
Things are far from guaranteed, but these two wins are critical for Northwestern’s postseason chances. Things won’t get any easier, however, with a road series against Maryland on tap next. The Terps, though, fell out of the top spot in the conference with two losses to Illinois this weekend, so perhaps the Cats are catching them at the right moment? Only time will tell.