For a Northwestern team with one of the youngest pitching staffs in the Big Ten, each sign of progress is huge, especially against top-tier conference foes.
With their 6-5 win over the Iowa Hawkeyes (19-11, 3-3 Big Ten) on Sunday at Rocky and Berenice Miller Park, the Wildcats (10-20, 2-4 Big Ten) took a three-game set from an explosive team that crushed them Friday. That certainly seems like progress.
It was also the Wildcats’ first Big Ten series win of the season. Last year, that didn’t happen until early May in the third-to-last conference series of the season against a cellar-dwelling Purdue. Iowa, on the other hand, is one of the Big Ten’s better teams.
“It’s huge, and I think it’s going to give our guys some confidence,” coach Spencer Allen said. “Today, we got over the hump...You’re watching guys grow up.”
Freshman Matt Gannon didn’t last long in his start, only going 3 1⁄3 innings before he was lifted for Josh Levy. Gannon was charged with three runs on four hits, with a two-run homer to left by Jake Adams highlighting his day. The home run, Adams’ 13th on the season, was his second of the series.
Levy was also hit by the home run big in his outing, as the Tyler Crowley two-run shot he gave up in the third put Northwestern in a 4-0 hole. Cropley also homered in Saturday’s game, as Iowa drilled five longballs in the series. The Hawkeyes added a run on a Chris Whelan single a few batters later but after that, Levy settled down.
Northwestern didn’t do much against Iowa starter Cole McDonald in the first few innings, and they finally broke through in the fourth with a four-run rally.
The Wildcats filled the bases with three consecutive singles to start the frame, and Leo Kaplan broke through with a double that eluded the glove of Corbin Woods at third base. That scored Connor Lind and Joe Hoscheit, and was soon followed by a Ben Dickey two-run single to center off Josh Martsching. All of sudden, the deficit was just 5-4.
“I feel like I have to take every at-bat the same way,” Kaplan said of his big bases-loaded knock. “I can’t think of how big the situation is. Just go up and there and get a good swing on it.”
As the partisan crowd in Evanston roared to life, the home team kept fighting back. Lind grounded into a run-scoring double play in the fifth to tie the game at five, and in the next inning, Jake Schieber’s second hit-by-pitch of the day — and third of the series — set up the go-ahead run.
After Shane Ritter plunked Schieber on the arm, he gave up a single to Dickey that put the all-important sixth run just 90 feet from home plate. The next at-bat, Alex Erro perfectly placed a bouncing grounder in the hole between first and second base to score Schieber and give Northwestern a 6-5 lead, its first of the day.
Pete Hofman would handle it the rest of the way.
Levy walked Adams to start the seventh, which prompted Allen to call on Hofman out of the bullpen. He — much like Sam Lawrence on Saturday — was lights out, shutting down Iowa for the final three innings to earn the save.
“I can’t say enough for what Pete has gone through,” Allen said. “I told him, that’s like a walk-off home run for him. I’m so proud of him for battling through that.”
Hofman, who got the win in the second game of the Air Force doubleheader with 3 2⁄3 innings of scoreless relief, had impeccable command of his fastball throughout his appearance and struck out three Hawkeyes without surrendering a walk.
But, he ran into trouble in the ninth, as singles from Adams and Robert Neustrom put Iowa’s go-ahead runs on base. He was able to stave off the rally, though, coaxing a flyout from Ben Norman and freezing Cropley on a fastball at the corner to seal the game and earn his first save of the season.
“I was just building off what our relievers did yesterday,” the senior said, referring to Lawrence’s five shutout innings. “I had a good outing last time I pitched so I was relaxed out there.”
Iowa, like Northwestern, has a quick turnaround as the Hawkeyes host Western Illinois on Tuesday afternoon before visiting Nebraska next weekend. The Wildcats welcome Western Michigan to Evanston on Tuesday and will head to Peoria on Wednesday to play Bradley.