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Baseball: ‘Cats go 2-2 against Penn State in opening weekend

Some ups and downs saw the Wildcats start at .500.

Just as the Northwestern baseball team had flirted with the .500 mark in the 2019 season and finishing 6-7 in last year’s abbreviated season, the Wildcats started their 2021 on the same track.

In last weekend’s four-game series against Penn State, the NU lost their Friday game 6-3, won both games of a Saturday doubleheader (2-0, 5-2), and then capped off the series with a bats-ablaze 13-10 loss.

The Friday contest pretty much came down to the fourth inning. Ryan Bader started the game and through the first three innings, had held the Nittany Lions to one run against the Cats’ two.

In the fourth inning, Penn State’s Gavin Homer, knocked one run in. Then Josh Spiegel homered. Bader followed that with two bases-loaded walks, allowing a total of five runs. The bullpen, consisting of Garrett Boeckle and Quinn Lavelle held Penn State to only one more run after that, but the Northwestern bats had gone silent, and the team could not come back from the costly fourth inning, ultimately losing 6-3.

But there was one glimmer of hope: Vincent Bianchina, who made his collegiate baseball debut on Friday. Bianchina, one of the players who Evan Epstein had tagged in the 2021 Northwestern baseball review as an important replacement for Charlie Maxwell and Jack Anderson, pulled his weight as he contributed half of the team’s hits (2) and one of the team’s three runs. He also hit in David Dunn in the second inning for the team’s first run of the season — a hopeful harbinger of much more to come from the young second baseman.

The ‘Cats showed no sign of lag from the previous game, as they came back on Saturday ready to play. The first game was started by another key player in this season’s success, Tyler Ulberstine. The redshirt junior went four innings without allowing a run, and then Coby Moe came in for three innings of relief, also allowing nothing to the Nittany Lions.

Although Penn State and Conor Larkin pitched a fair game, two runs from Evan Minarovic’s RBI double and Bianchina’s RBI single led Northwestern victorious after seven innings.

In the afternoon game, the pitching stayed the course, but the bats finally woke up. Mike Doherty started the game for the Wildcats and pitched an extremely solid five innings and allowing only two runs and striking three out. The two runs allowed came in the first, putting the team in a quick hole, but Doherty’s teammates were there to back their pitcher up.

One run from a Bianchina RBI single in the third started the rally off. A two-out rally in the seventh resulted in more damage with a Dunn RBI single, a Leo Kaplan RBI single and a wild pitch that scored Bianchina. One more run in the eighth closed the game with a 5-2 final score, and the Wildcats’ five unanswered tallies proving to be the clear difference.

Coming off two low-scoring games, allowing only two runs in two games, Sunday’s game was anything but, as 23 total runs were scored between the two teams.

Jack Dyke struggled from the start and did not record an out after five batters faced resulted in three earned runs. The rest of the pitching staff struggled as well allowing 10 more runs in the next seven innings, and ultimately, Ben Grable was dealt the loss after allowing five hits and two earned runs in an inning and two-thirds.

From an offense standpoint, however, things were fantastic. The team put up 10 runs on 17 base hits. Dunn (who after the four-game series leads the team with a .538 batting average and 11 total bases) and first-year Ethan O’Donnell both put balls in the purple seats at U.S. Bank Stadium, and Stephen Hrustich reached base five times. Lots of good to look at in the box score of this Sunday game, but the Nittany Lions outpowered the Northwestern attack in a 10-13 loss.

After four games against a solid Penn State team, Northwestern should be optimistic. The bats came alive in the latter half of the series, and pitching looked great in the beginning. If the ‘Cats can put both together consistently, this will be a fun year for Chicago’s Big Ten team.

The ‘Cats look to improve to a winning record with a four-game series against Michigan State in Greenville, South Carolina starting this Friday.