Facing an Air Force team featuring multiple .400 hitters and one of the most explosive offenses in Division 1 baseball, the Northwestern pitching staff had a tough task ahead of itself this weekend in Evanston.
Yet, thanks to a pair of comebacks in the final two games of the series, the Wildcats (8-18) were able to overcome inconsistent starting pitching to take two of three from the Falcons (12-15).
The opener was pushed back a day, as expected rain on Friday led to a Saturday doubleheader. While the rain didn’t materialize, both games were still played on Saturday, with Air Force winning Game 1 in a rout and Northwestern taking Game 2 with an impressive comeback.
Tommy Bordignon got the start in the first game for the Wildcats and pitched great for 5 2⁄3 innings before everything started to fall apart. Bordignon hadn’t appeared since struggling in a loss to Indiana on March 24th, but despite early command issues, was working on a gem until the 6th inning.
With the game tied at two, Bordignon retired the first two Air Force batters of the top of the 6th and was primed for a clean quality start. Then he walked Russell Williams and Ashton Easley and was then lifted for reliever JR Reimer.
Reimer struggled immediately, allowing a two-run double to Rob Dau (which glanced off the glove of left fielder Joe Hoscheit) and walking a pair of batters before Nick Cauley entered to try and stop the bleeding. He would allow back-to-back-to-back walks and a two-run single to Nic Ready, but finally got the last out of the disastrous frame when Williams grounded out. However, the damage was done as the Falcons pushed seven runs across.
Air Force would add a few more insurance runs off Cauley and Tyler Lass en route to an 11-3 win. Northwestern’s hitters were baffled by lefty Jacob DeVries — a 2016 Cleveland Indians draft pick — all day, but Willie Bourbon did tag DeVries for a long solo home run to right in the 7th.
Following a 30-minute break, both teams — in changed uniforms — were back at it for Game 2, which didn’t start too well for the home team. Freshman Hank Christie gave up a pair of RBI doubles in the top of the 1st — to Bradley Haslam and Nic Ready — which put the Wildcats in an immediate 2-0 hole.
Christie only went 2 1⁄3 innings against the Falcons, allowing seven hits and six runs (four earned) with four strikeouts. Air Force is one of the top hitting teams in the country, and they were aggressive with the Wildcats’ young starter, knocking him around to all parts of the field. Northwestern was down 6-0 after just three defensive half-innings.
But Spencer Allen’s team started chipping away at the deficit, getting back three of the runs in the bottom of the 3rd. Sophomore shortstop Jack Dunn — who has been in a season-long slump — drove in Charlie Maxwell with a single, which was followed by run-scoring hits from Alex Erro and Hoscheit.
Northwestern posted two more runs against Air Force starter Ethan Nichols in the 5th, as Dunn and Hopfner came through with an RBI single and double, respectively. Meanwhile, Sam Lawrence and Pete Hofman were shutting down the potent Falcons’ offense, as they combined for 6 2⁄3 innings of scoreless relief in support of Christie.
The Wildcats finally drew even in the 6th as a Hopfner single scored Ben Dickey, serving as the tying run. Then, a Jake Schieber base knock in the 7th made it 7-6 in favor of Northwestern, which had completed the comeback attempt with seven unanswered runs. Ryan Holloway got the loss for Air Force while Hofman — who gave up just one hit in the final 3 2/3 frames — earned his first win of the season.
Another freshman, Matt Gannon, started Sunday’s rubber game for Northwestern, and fared pretty well. Gannon went five strong innings and gave up one run as both he and Air Force’s Matt Hargreaves shut down lineups that might have been a little tired from the previous day.
The Wildcats used some small-ball for their first run, as a perfectly executed Dunn safety squeeze scored Schieber from third base to tie the game at one in the 6th. A Josh Levy wild pitch in the next half-inning gave the lead right back to Air Force and forced a second comeback in as many days.
A lead-off single by Jack Claeys in the bottom of the 8th against Evan Floyd was followed by a Dunn walk, which set up the game-tying run. Hoscheit hit a groundball to shortstop Tyler Zabojnik, whose throwing error scored Dunn and made it 2-2. The rally ended on a Bourbon groundout but extended the game nonetheless.
Levy was able to rebound and shut down the Falcons in the 9th and even into extra innings, as Northwestern and Air Force were locked in a stalemate until the bottom of the 11th, when Connor Lind sent the fans home happy. He launched a walkoff home run to left against Nick Biancalana to give the Wildcats a much-needed 3-2 victory and series win.
Afterwards, Lind was properly rewarded by his teammates.
Northwestern stays in Cook County this week, starting with a trip to Chicago on Tuesday night to play the UIC Flames at Curtis Granderson Stadium. UIC has already beaten the Wildcats twice this season, with both previous meetings in Evanston.