Northwestern baseball needed one final comeback to capture a Big Ten Tournament title and extend its season. After finding ways to rally all week (and weekend) long, the Wildcats simply ran out of gas on Sunday afternoon.
The fifth-seeded Iowa Hawkeyes (38-20, 15-9 Big Ten) were too much for seventh-seeded Northwestern (27-30, 13-11), jumping out to a 5-0 lead in the first inning and never looking back in a 13-4 victory in the championship game.
The Wildcats’ season is almost certainly over after failing to receive the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. Still, Sunday afternoon’s disappointing result should take nothing away from their enthralling cinderella run in Bloomington. Last season, Northwestern won seven conference games all year. This 2017 team won seven conference games in a row, including their first two in the tournament, and came within one victory of a championship.
The Wildcats’ biggest problem all year, a lack of quality pitching depth, came back to bite them against Iowa. Coach Spencer Allen used his top starter, Cooper Wetherbee, in Sunday morning’s thrilling semifinal victory over Maryland. Freshman Matt Gannon got the start against the Hawkeyes, but couldn’t make it through the first inning.
Gannon loaded the bases with a single and two walks, then balked in a run before allowing a sacrifice fly to make it 2-0. Tyler Lass came in for Gannon and Iowa pushed across three more runs on a pair of RBI hits and a wild pitch to make the score 5-0 after an inning.
The Northwestern offense, which had repeatedly come back from early deficits in this tournament, could never get much of anything going against Iowa starter Drake Robison. In the top of the third, the Wildcats got on the board with a Nick Paciorek double and a Jack Dunn RBI groundout, but that would be the only run they would score until the game was well out of hand. Robison went seven strong innings, allowing just 4 hits, 3 walks and a run while striking out 6.
Iowa added another run in the fifth, 4 more in the seventh, and finished off the blowout with its 11th, 12th and 13th runs in the eighth. Big Ten Player of the Year Jake Adams hit his 26th and 27th home runs of the season (in just 58 games!!) in the seventh and eighth innings, tying him for the national lead. The Hawkeyes struck out just once all day.
A Ben Dickey two-run single and an RBI double by Charlie Maxwell in the top of the ninth made the final score a slightly more palatable 13-4.
Despite the outcome, the focus should remain on the remarkable turnaround Allen and his players are manufacturing in Evanston. Led by a mix of talented veterans and encouraging young players, Northwestern overcame seven losses to start the season and another six-game losing streak in March to win 27 games. The Wildcats were 22-13 over their last 35 games after a 5-17 start.
This run in Bloomington captured the attention of both casual Northwestern fans and Big Ten baseball followers from all over the conference. The Wildcats took down the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds to advance to the semifinals, then responded to adversity in the form of their first loss by defeating No. 4 seed Maryland on Sunday morning.
Next season should be an exciting one at Rocky and Berenice Miller Park. Northwestern will be without seniors like Wetherbee, Joe Hoscheit, Matt Hopfner and Pete Hofman, who were instrumental in turning this team into a dangerous one down the stretch.
But the core group of young, talented players, guys like Alex Erro, Jack Dunn, Hank Christie, Leo Kaplan, Sam Lawrence, and so many others, gained invaluable experience during this postseason run and will surely be motivated to come back next year and continue to build on this foundation.
As the entire Big Ten now knows, it’s time to stop sleeping on the Wildcats.