When it rains, it pours...so long as the rain consists of baseballs over Champaign, Illinois, that is.
Northwestern downed Illinois in two of the teams’ three contests this weekend, winning its third consecutive series, powered of a whopping 15 home runs. All but one of the long flies came in the final two games of the series, both of which were NU victories.
This marks the first time the Wildcats have won three consecutive series since they did so to close out the regular season in 2017, when they bested Purdue, Maryland and Rutgers in early- to mid-May. That team wound up losing in the Big Ten Championship Game to Iowa just nine days later.
The first game of the series was actually a relatively low scoring affair at first. Through three innings, the Illini held a 2-0 lead before the ‘Cats posted a five-spot in the top of the fourth behind two RBI singles, a two-run base knock from catcher Mike Trautwein, and a walked-in run. The Illini answered with a run of their own in the bottom of the inning and added another in the bottom of the sixth. Still, NU starter Mike Doherty exited with a quality start after six innings pitched — with three earned runs on seven hits and his team ahead 5-4.
Things fell apart for the ‘Cats after the seventh inning stretch, though, when reliever Garrett Boeckle allowed two runs without retiring a single batter. Northwestern head coach Spencer Allen then gave the ball to sophomore Coby Moe, who allowed four runs, also without recording a single out. Finally, Allen brought in Reed Smith, who allowed another two runs (one earned) while retiring the side to put the seventh inning to a merciful end.
All in all, the Illini put up eight runs in the bottom of the seventh to take a 12-5 lead. While Smith tossed a scoreless eighth and the ‘Cats would tighten the margin in the ninth thanks to a three-run shot by Trautwein, marking his third straight game with a homer, it wasn’t be enough to overcome the disastrous inning of relief, and the Wildcats fell 12-8.
The next day, Northwestern produced its best offensive performance of the season and one of its most prolific hitting efforts in program history in an absolute whirlwind of ballgame.
In the very first at-bat of the game, NU first baseman Anthony Calarco homered to center, foreshadowing the home run derby that would ensue. Over the course of the first four innings, the ‘Cats put up six runs, with shortstop Shawn Goosenberg adding a two-run blast, Calarco and left fielder Stephen Hrustich each hitting RBI doubles, and second baseman Vincent Bianchina driving in a run on a single. Meanwhile, NU starter Tyler Uberstine allowed no runs through the first three innings.
In the fourth, though, the wheels fell off for Uberstine, who allowed four earned runs, lost the lead and was pulled at the inning’s end. First-year Ben Grable came on in relief and allowed a two-run home run to Illinois catcher Jacob Campbell, which gave the Illini an 8-6 advantage.
The ‘Cats responded with another burst of six runs — all via the long ball — over the sixth and seventh innings. Center fielder Ethan O’Donnell led things off with a solo shot, Calarco went yard once more, Hrustich homered twice and Trautwein hit one to extend his home run streak to four games, leaving NU with a 12-8 lead at the stretch.
Grable, who tossed a scoreless sixth, returned to the mound in the bottom of the seventh, only to allow the first two batters of the inning aboard and a three-run blast that brought U of I within one before being removed for sophomore Jack Sauser. The Illinois native got through the remainder of the seventh without event, but after retiring a batter in the eighth, gave up a solo shot to shortstop Brandon Comia to tie the game at 12. Jack Dyke replaced Sauser and promptly gave up a homer to the first batter he faced, designated hitter Ryan Hampe, before retiring the rest of the Illinois side. The back-to-back jacks gave the Illini a 13-12 lead heading into the ninth.
At this point, the Cardiac ‘Cats emerged. Calarco began the rally with a solo shot — his third homer of the game — to tie things up at 13, and David Dunn drove in the leading run on an error by Illinois second baseman Xavier Watson. Bianchina added insurance with his second-career home run and the team’s ninth and final shot of the game, a two-run blast that left the score at 16-13 heading into the bottom of the ninth.
Recap of yesterday:— Northwestern Baseball (@NUCatsBaseball) March 28, 2021
Calarco: 3 Home runs.
Hrustich: 2 Home runs.
Goosenberg, Trautwein, O’Donnell, Bianchina: 1 Home run each.
That’s what we call a good day at the office #GoCats pic.twitter.com/hmEY8MOozF
Though Wildcat closer Sam Lawrence allowed another Illini run and the tying run on base, he struck out the game’s final batter to close the affair after three hours and 32 minutes of play and six lead changes, with NU victorious, 16-14. Those 16 runs represent the most Northwestern has scored in a game since February 2018, when it hung 18 on Kansas.
In the series finale, the Wildcats’ bats stayed hot, and more stalwart pitching made for a much less hectic game. NU went yard five times. Goosenberg hit two bombs, while Trautwein extended his impressive streak to five games. Pitcher Quinn Lavelle recorded a quality start, striking out four over six innings while allowing seven hits and four runs (three earned). Reed Smith provided three innings of relief and gave up an additional run while striking out five of the nine batters he retired, earning his first career save as Northwestern won 12-5.
NU is now 9-5 on the season, good for fourth place in the Big Ten behind Indiana, Michigan and Nebraska. In a twist of fate from past years, the ‘Cats have been the conference’s premier offensive club thus far, leading the league in batting average, home runs and slugging percentage, among other categories. They’ll follow the softball squad to College Park this weekend for two games against both Maryland and Michigan before returning to Evanston for their first home stand since 2019.