During its season-opening six-game losing streak, Northwestern baseball struggled to produce runs consistently, averaging under three runs a game. So, when the Wildcats went west to Santa Clara for a four-game weekend series, the first goal was to get off the schneid and the second was to get the bats going.
Consider both missions accomplished.
In a series split with the Santa Clara Broncos — with wins in Game 1 of Saturday’s doubleheader and Sunday’s finale — the Wildcats (2-8) had some big offensive showings in the wins (22 runs combined) and disappointing ones in the losses (three runs).
But after failing to eclipse six runs in any of the games in the first two series, Spencer Allen and his staff have to be pretty pleased with how the offense started to click out in California.
Shut out by Broncos starter Jacob Steffens for the first eight innings on Friday, Northwestern only managed three hits until the 9th inning. Then, following a leadoff strikeout by Ben Dickey, a Matt Hopfner single and Alex Erro fielder’s choice set the stage for a big inning.
Joe Hoscheit struck out — the last of Steffens’ 11 punchouts — to leave everything up to Connor Lind with two outs and the Wildcats down 3-0. He drilled a two-run double to right, scoring both Hopfner and Erro, which brought up freshman Charlie Maxwell with a chance for heroics. However, he lined out, ending the rally and dealing Northwestern its seventh straight loss.
Senior Joe Schindler got the start, but was relieved by Josh Davis after the 1st inning, in which he gave up a home run to lead off the frame. Davis and Katz combined for seven solid innings of two-run relief. Schindler fell to 0-3 on the season.
In the first game on Saturday, freshman Hank Christie — who has been the Wildcats’ best starter thus far — spun an absolute gem to even up the series at one game apiece. The righthander threw a complete game to earn his first college win, scattering six hits and allowing just a single run. He didn’t walk anyone either, and has given just three free passes in his 16 innings.
His offense backed him up too, as every position player (including Maxwell, the designated hitter) notched a hit. Jack Claeys got the scoring started in the top of the 2nd with a double that scored Maxwell and gave the Wildcats a 1-0 lead it would not relinquish. Hoscheit and Hopfner contributed with RBI singles.
The day’s second game didn’t go as well for Northwestern’s other freshman starter, Matt Gannon. The lanky lefty didn’t make it out of the opening frame, allowing a two-run longball to Jake Brodt and run-scoring double to Andre Nnebe, which put the Wildcats in an early 3-0 hole they weren’t able to recover from.
Pete Hofman did yeoman’s work in his 4 1⁄3 innings to help relieve a bullpen that had to go seven innings the day before. Northwestern got a run back in the top of the 2nd when Hoscheit scored on an error by Austin Reyes but that would constitute the Wildcats’ entire scoring output on the day. Cooper Wetherbee chipped in with three scoreless innings in relief as well.
Sunday’s game had it all — 24 total runs (two more than the three other games combined), the invoking of the series finale time curfew, almost 400 pitches thrown — and Northwestern ended up on the good end.
For the third time in the series, the Wildcats’ starter didn’t make it past the 1st inning. Tommy Bordignon failed to record an out before Josh Levy replaced him. Bordignon gave up a single, threw a pair of wild pitches, and walked three Broncos as Northwestern fell behind 2-0 without recording an out. Levy worked around his inherited runners with two strikeouts and a fly out to limit the damage. He would shut down Santa Clara for the next four innings in a sparkling outing (with five strikeouts).
Then, the Wildcats’ offense got to work. Run-scoring hits from Jack Dunn and Leo Kaplan — sandwiching a RBI fielder’s choice from Ben Dickey — gave Northwestern the lead in the top of the 2nd, the first of four straight innings in which runs were scored.
Doubles from Hopfner, Erro and Claeys added to the lead in the 4th, as did another Kaplan single, which scored Lind and Claeys to give the Wildcats a 9-2 edge. Claeys did it again the following innings, as the score climbed to 11-2 in favor of the visitors.
Santa Clara roared back with a six-run bottom of the 6th against Richard Fordon, punctuated by a Lucas Eliason two-run shot. Nick Cauley entered and was able to stem the tide.
The teams exchanged solo shots in the 7th — Northwestern’s from Erro, his second of the season — and the Wildcats got a trio of insurance runs in the 8th. They wound up winning 15-9 as JR Reimer closed the door in the final two innings to earn the save. Levy, deservedly, garnered his first win of the year.
The big standouts from the weekend were Erro — who continued to rake from the second base position — as well as Claeys, Christie and Levy. Note that three of them are freshman, and it has been Spencer Allen’s newcomers that have made some of the most important impacts so far.
Northwestern’s home opener at Rocky and Berenice Miller Park is on Tuesday against UIC at 3:00 p.m. After that, the Wildcats head west again for a four-game set at the Portland Pilots beginning on Thursday.