Hello again baseball friends, sorry for the absence. I feel like I just stumbled out of dense forest with my hair matted, begging for water. The beginning of this season has felt like a long journey through the baseball wilderness, but there is civilization in sight, the home opener is next week!
It all started well enough, with a very professional radio broadcast put on by Oregon State University. Northwestern led through 5 and were tied in the 9th with a program that has made the NCAA Tournament in 10 of the last 11 seasons. It felt like the season was off to a smashing success. In hindsight, there were warning signs: 4 men left in scoring position, 11 strikeouts. Tied at 1 in the ninth, the ‘Cats fell apart. A runner caught stealing in the top half of the inning set the stage for a walk-off balk in the bottom half that brought the season opener to a maddeningly quick close. All the potential, all the excitement, slipped away as the record became simply: 0-1.
Over the next two games, the ‘Cats showed some grit by putting aside the embarrassing loss and playing close games with New Mexico and Michigan State. Both games ended in losses, however, and Northwestern closed the first weekend with nothing to show for their trouble but a crazy story and three losses.
The next weekend, a trip to San Antonio brought three more losses, these to Villanova, Incarnate Word, and Notre Dame. The latter two institutions provided free radio broadcasts on their websites, and there was a stark contrast. The Notre Dame broadcast provided detailed insights throughout (big shout out for their coverage of Cody Stevens' dramatic summer of 2012), while the Incarnate Word broadcast was more judicious with their insights. In the consolation game of the four-team tournament, the ‘Cats not only got a 7-5 victory, their first of the season, but they also got their best offensive player, Kyle Ruchim, back from suspension. There was something resembling optimism heading into a three game set with the Southeastern Louisiana Lions.
Unfortunately, the trip to Hammond began with a 10-5 defeat, erasing whatever momentum NU had and making the eventual sweep of the series feel almost inevitable. Ten games into the season, and the ‘Cats had 1 victory. My best hope was that after suffering every kind of loss imaginable, the only remaining option was to win.
In a trip to Florida the following weekend, NU showed tremendous resiliency against Ball State, surrendering a two run lead in the 7th, but going on to win in 11 innings. The next day they beat Dartmouth and hope returned. But the ‘Cats dropped the next two against Georgetown before a series opening win at Seattle University was followed by two more losses. Sitting at 4-13, the team headed out to continue their tour of the West Coast with a four game set in Las Vegas followed by two games in Moraga, California. With school on Spring break, they would play 6 games in 6 days. The Rebels of UNLV were nice enough to provide a free video feed of the game online, and I tuned in. Unfortunately, the high-definition quality that the website promised was too much for my cheap internet service and I was forced to watch at 234 pixels just to get the game to run at roughly a live pace. It felt like I was watching a shadow puppet rendition of baseball with a fuzzy audio link. After falling behind early, Northwestern put together 6 runs in the eighth and ninth to send the game to extra innings. With both offenses struggling, there appeared to be no end in sight. The pitchers for each squad, Jake Stolley for NU and Joey Lauria for UNLV, were locked in and each threw six plus scoreless innings. In the bottom of the 15th, however, the ‘Cats changed pitchers and quickly gave up a hit batsman and two singles to end the game. Northwestern added another disheartening loss to their season. After an offensive explosion led to a 13-12 win the next day, 4 straight losses by a combined score of 44-20 ended the west coast trip and sent the 'Cats into Big Ten play with a record of 5-18.
A trip to Minneapolis opened the B1G slate for NU, and after a series opening defeat, the ‘Cats took the series with a 2-1 overtime win on Saturday and a 19-7 blowout win on Sunday. A 7-2 victory over Chicago State two days later gave the 'Cats a three game winning streak and serious momentum heading into a matchup with a nationally ranked Illinois squad. Due to ongoing construction at Rocky Miller Park, NU would be the home team for the three game set in Champaign.
Only a day after learning that coach Paul Stevens will retire at the end of this season, his 27th, Northwestern sent lefty Matt Portland to the mound to open the series. After allowing a run in the third, Portland maneuvered his way out of trouble a couple of times late in the game to put up nine innings of one run ball. Unfortunately, NU was unable to take advantage of their own scoring opportunities, including a first and second situation with no outs in the bottom of the ninth. Unable to come up with the big hit, the game went to extra innings. On came Jake Stolley again and the bullpens traded scoreless innings until the 13th, when Illinois broke through with a home run to lead off the inning. After scratching across another unearned run in the inning, Northwestern came to bat in the bottom of the 13th with the heart of the order due up. The ‘Cats could only muster a single before going quietly, ending their winning streak and whatever momentum had been generated by Portland's performance. To drive this point home, the next two games ended 11-4 and 17-2 in favor of Illinois.
Northwestern, needing a serious rebound after the two blowout losses at home in Champaign, headed to East Lansing this last weekend to face Michigan State again. The ‘Cats showed some fight by rallying late and winning the series opener 7-6, pushing their Big Ten record to a respectable 3 and 4. After leading early the next day in their bid to reach .500 in league, the 'Cats reverted to the gloomy story line of the 2015 season to date. NU allowed 4 runs in the ninth, including a walk off single that ended the game 7-6 in favor of Michigan State. Another blow out loss on Sunday, a game where Northwestern had chances early to put runs on the board but did not capitalize, pushed NU to 3 and 6 in league and 9 and 24 overall.
While Northwestern has yet to play a home game, it already feels like this team has exhausted their allotment of heartbreak for the season. For those of you who have been following this team through the baseball backwoods, full of crushing defeats, empty bleachers, and radio silence, I am certain your patience has been tested. Next week, after a quick bout with UIC this evening, and a weekend series at Iowa, the ‘Cats will open up their home schedule against Milwaukee on Tuesday at 3. Perhaps a change of venue will do the team good. Perhaps having embattled coach Stevens on the way out will inspire the team to close the season strong. Perhaps the trees budding out around campus will remind the players that even the longest winters eventually end. I will be there next week, rooting for Northwestern, and I hope to see some of you there as well.