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Northwestern baseball christens the new Rocky and Berenice Miller Park with win over Chicago State

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The Wildcats came back from an early deficit to win the opener at their renovated stadium.

Credit: Josh Burton
Credit: Josh Burton

A dreary forecast and two 1st inning runs allowed by Jake Stolley threatened to make Northwestern baseball's return to the newly renovated Rocky and Berenice Miller Park a losing one on Wednesday afternoon against Chicago State. However, a six-run 3rd inning —highlighted by a Jack Claeys grand slam — led the Wildcats to an easy 11-5 win over the visiting Cougars.

Stolley, a senior making his first collegiate start, struggled through 2+ innings but limited the damage somewhat. He allowed 3 runs (1 earned) before giving way to Danny Katz. Katz, a freshman, slowed down Chicago State (6-17) for the next five innings as the Northwestern offense perked up and chased Cougars' starter Noe Arteaga after 2.2 innings (and 6 earned runs).

With the Wildcats (7-18) down 3-0 in the bottom half of the 3rd, Jack Dunn walked to lead off the frame, stole second base and then was driven in on a Zach Jones single. After a walk and hit by pitch put Matt Hopfner and Joe Hoscheit, respectively, on base, Claeys crushed an Arteaga pitch over the left field fence for his first collegiate home run. Two batters later, freshman Willie Bourbon went to the opposite field for a solo shot, giving Northwestern a 6-3 lead.

The offensive explosion essentially put this game out of reach. Katz allowed just two runs over the next five innings to calm the tide and put the Wildcats in very good position for their first home win of the season. Another burst — resulting in a four-run 5th inning —gave Northwestern a 10-3 lead that would be more enough the rest of the way.

For a Northwestern team that had lost eight of its last nine games, the victory over intra-country opponent Chicago State was much-needed, as was the home cooking. The Wildcats had some big scoring outputs earlier in nonconference play but the bats have been quiet lately, so double-digit runs — and multi-hit games from Jones, Bourbon and Connor Lind — was just what the doctor ordered.

The Wildcats get to stay in Evanston for the next week or so, as they welcome the Michigan Wolverines to Evanston for a three-game Big Ten series over the weekend. Then, next Tuesday, the UIC Flames come to town before Northwestern heads to Nebraska next weekend.

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New digs

Wednesday's game gave the public its first chance to see the new Rocky and Berenice Miller Park, which had been undergoing renovations since the 2014-15 baseball season ended.

The overcast skies cast a pall on the stadium, which really is nice and an enormous improvement over the Rocky Miller Park from previous seasons. The press box is new, the dugouts are new, the turf is nice and even the scoreboard is impressive.

The new purple seats are also a very nice touch. There's even the brand new Hayden Clubhouse for the team that, from a cursory glance, looks pretty cool.

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What they said

- Danny Katz on his strong outing: "I got some early outs on groundballs, was able to keep my pitch count low...When you come in with runners on base, you just want to do your job and limit the runs you give up...Being able to pitch the first game in the new stadium is an awesome feeling."

- Jack Claeys on hitting his grand slam in the 'new' Rocky and Berenice Miller Park: "Honestly, it's so surreal. When I was being recruited, they were talking about this stadium...To come out and beat a good team in Chicago State, and to hit the first home run, it's a great honor."

- Willie Bourbon on his 4-hit game and home run: "We came out here with the right mindset, tried to stay flat on the ball...Today was one of those days with that jet stream out to left field...I think sticking with my same approach is what helped me today."

- Coach Spencer Allen on the big win: "It's great to be back home. After the 2nd inning, I said 'Come on guys, let's relax' and they did. They started to play a little bit...The biggest thing is the tempo of the game...Once we started swinging at strikes, we saw some balls go out and we took our walks."