Northwestern baseball shut out Rutgers for the first 20 innings of this week’s series en route to a regular season-ending sweep and a guaranteed spot in the Big Ten Tournament.
The Wildcats (24-28, 13-11 Big Ten) extended their win streak to five with the dominant home performance against the Scarlet Knights (19-34, 7-16 B1G) to finish with a positive conference record for the first time since 2010, which is also the last season in which they made the Big Ten Tournament.
Hank Christie turned in his fifth quality start in his last six appearances in Game 1 of Saturday’s doubleheader, blanking the Scarlet Knights while allowing just five hits and no walks to go with four strikeouts. He has been dominant in the last month, lowering his ERA from 6.38 to 3.82 since April 8th.
Alex Erro and Matt Hopfner provided the offense to back Christie up one of Friday’s doubleheader. Erro laced a two-RBI single up the middle in the second inning, and Hopfner did the same thing to right in the seventh to double the Wildcats lead to 4-0, where it would remain.
Rutgers actually outhit Northwestern on the day, and struck out less (nine for Northwestern, five for Rutgers), but left nine men on base as timely hitting continued for Spencer Allen’s team.
Rutgers’s defensive woes continued. The Scarlet Knights came into the series as the worst-ever defensive team in the Big Ten, and third baseman Christian Campbell helped his team live up to its reputation, committing a pair of errors.
Lefty Sam Lawrence pitched two scoreless innings of relief and allowed only one baserunner to secure the 4-0 win.
With the series win locked up, the finale began after a two-hour rain delay between games of the doubleheader as Josh Davis took the bump against Colin Bohnert, who usually works out of the Rutgers’ bullpen.
An initially bizarre offensive game saw Northwestern strike first on a Hopfner flyball to Scarlet Knights right fielder Tommy Genuario. It was of routine depth but the strong winds blowing from left to right field kept carrying the ball back over the head of a charging Genuario. By the time his throw reached the infield, Hopfner was already on third. An unearned run came around to score two batters later when Connor Lind hit a sacrifice fly to center.
Rutgers answered back and tied it at 1-1 with a Nick Bowerbank single up the middle to score Carmen Sclafani, who also reached on an error, by Northwestern shortstop Jack Dunn.
Northwestern retook the lead in the bizarre sixth inning. With runners at second and third and two men out, Hopfner notched his only RBI of the day with a single up the middle that scored Erro and moved Joe Hoscheit to third. He finished 1-for-4 with 2 runs and 1 RBI. Hoscheit would later score on a wild pitch. Bohnert’s day ended after 5 2⁄3 innings of work when Hopfner stole third and Jack Claeys walked.
Ryan Fleming took over and quickly balked to score Hopfner. Lind then singled to score Claeys and make it 5-1 in favor of Northwestern. The runs were tacked onto Bohnert’s ledger, and Fleming shut down the Wildcats offense for the rest of the day.
Pete Hofman was brought on in the eighth after Davis’ stellar outing and, despite not looking as sharp as usual, he was able to eventually finish off the Scarlet Knights. An eighth inning double from Campbell scored two to cut the lead to 5-3.
Rutgers sent six men to the plate in the ninth inning in a furious attempt to spoil Senior Day and the Wildcats’ chance to clinch a tournament berth. Chris Folinusz led off the inning by reaching on Dunn’s second error of the day and was replaced by Kyle Gerace as a pinch-runner by Kyle Gerace.
Hofman struck out the next two batters, but gave up a single to Tommy Genuario that scored Gerace and made it 5-4. The hit should have been a double, but Genuario slipped and fell while rounding first on a wet day at Rocky and Berenice Miller Park. Hofman gave up a walk to Luke Bowerbank and allowed both runners to advance on a wild pitch, putting the tying run just 90 feet from home plate.
With two outs and and two runners in scoring position, it was up to Rutgers’ freshman shortstop Kevin Welsh. Hofman pinpointed a fastball on the outside part of the plate to freeze Welsh with two strikes, ending the game and the regular season for both teams.
Northwestern will be a representative in the Big Ten Tournament — which starts in Bloomington, Indiana on Wednesday — for the first time in seven years. They will be the No. 7 seed and face off in the first round of the double-elimination tournament against the No. 2 team. With more conference games to be played over the weekend, who Northwestern will play is still up in the air as the top five teams in the conference are separated by a total of 1.5 games. Of course, we’ll let you know when it’s official.