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Baseball: ‘Cats hit snag after winless outing in Champaign

Getting swept in a Big Ten series hurts, but especially against your in-state rival.

Coming off of a series win against Penn State and a Tuesday victory over Roosevelt, Northwestern baseball was on the upswing after a dismal start to the season. However, one of the Wildcats’ first real tests was imminent: a three-game set with the Illini at Illinois Field.

Entering Champaign, the Wildcats posted a 4-2 record in Big Ten play against PSU and Indiana; however, NU departed UIUC at 4-5 in the blink of an eye.

Game one of the series was riveting. The ‘Cats got on the board first courtesy of a solo shot by sophomore Vince Bianchina, his first homer of the season, in the second inning. However, the Illini took the lead off of first-year Sean Sullivan, scoring runs in the third and fourth. Sullivan posted a solid, albeit short, outing, going four innings and yielding six hits and three runs across 92 pitches.

After chasing Sullivan in the bottom of the fifth, Illinois tacked on another run via a wild pitch by Reed Smith. Though neither team scored in the sixth or the seventh, things got thoroughly entertaining in the top of the eighth, when Bianchina cut the Illini lead to one off a fielder’s choice. In the bottom of the inning, though, Illinois added two more.

In the top of the ninth, J.C. Santini, Ethan O’Donnell and Anthony Calarco all walked, setting up Jay Beshears with the bases loaded and nobody out. Beshears lined a pitch into left field that squeaked over the wall, giving Northwestern the lead on a dramatic, visceral grand slam. The ‘Cats led 6-5 entering the bottom of the ninth.

Coby Moe came on in relief for NU and promptly walked the first two Illini batters. Then, a throwing error by Moe allowed the tying run to cross the plate. An intentional walk loaded the bases, and Beshears threw out Andrew Kim at home to momentarily halt the Illinois rally. Yet Illinois third baseman Branden Comia delivered in the end, his walk-off single winning U of I the game 7-6.

Game two was far less thrilling for Northwestern. The Illini jumped on graduate transfer Michael Farinelli early, scoring three in the bottom of the first. Although Anthony Calarco and Stephen Hrustich tied the game in the top of the third, Illinois swiftly retook the lead in the bottom of the frame. NU collected two more runs in the sixth with a Hrustich home run and an O’Donnell single, but U of I scored in the sixth, seventh and eighth to put the game to bed. The Illini dominated 11-6.

In game three, Northwestern’s bats suddenly went cold. The Wildcats had just three hits and no runs, their first shutout since April 18th, 2021. Illinois starter Riley Gowens dealt, going seven shutout innings and permitting just three hits en route to a win. While Jack Sauser and Kellen Pate combined to pitch four no-hit innings in relief of Grant Comstock, the ‘Cats lost 3-0 and were swept.

Returning home to Rocky and Berenice Miller Park on Tuesday provided a respite for Josh Reynolds’ team. Opposing the Saint Louis Billikens, the ‘Cats accrued a 5-0 lead by the fourth inning as Tony Livermore, Bianchina and Andrew Pinkston drove in runs. In his first career start for the Wildcats, David Utagawa had a promising afternoon, going four innings while permitting four hits and one (unearned) run.

However, the Billikens experienced a jump-start when Moe entered the game for Utagawa in the fifth. SLU scored two off of the junior righty, who has surrendered four runs in his last 2.1 innings pitched. The Wildcats survived a two-run top of the eighth, staving off a Saint Louis rally and winning 8-5 to move to 16-16.

Thus far, Northwestern has enjoyed tremendous success at home. The ‘Cats will put their 9-1 record at Miller Park to the test as they usher in the 14-19 Michigan State Spartans for a three-game set this weekend. First pitch is slated for Friday at 3:30 PM CT.