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Baseball: Wildcats win and lose big in penultimate week of regular season

Whether or not the ‘Cats have a shot at the postseason is going to come down to the wire.

Photo by Hannah Evans, @hannahevphotography

Northwestern’s rollercoaster season continued its inconsistent path last week, beating Milwaukee and splitting the weekend series with Purdue, 1-2. The ‘Cats also fell to No. 14 Notre Dame on Tuesday, bringing their overall season record to 22-26 (8-13 B1G).

Coming off a sweep by Ohio State where they were outscored 45-20 in three games, the Wildcats headed to Milwaukee on May 10 with a chance to break their five-game losing streak. Both teams exchanged runs early, with Northwestern taking the lead in the fifth inning after three consecutive bases-loaded walks by JC Santini, Patrick Herrera and Anthony Calarco. The trio of walks was was part of a five-run fifth frame, when the ‘Cats took a 7-4 lead and never looked back.

Home runs in the sixth and seventh innings by Stephen Hrustich, Tommy D’Alise and Herrera kept Northwestern’s offensive momentum, but Milwaukee was able to keep the game close with a three-run bomb of its own. With the lead at three, the Wildcats exploded for five runs in each of the final two frames, led by homers from both Calarco and D’Alise. On the strength of these five home runs, Northwestern blew out Milwaukee 21-8 to snap its losing streak.

Senior third-baseman D’Alise led the stat sheet for the ‘Cats, going 5-for-6 with three runs and five RBIs. His stellar game was boosted by Herrera and Calarco, both of whom registered a hit in three of their four at-bats.

Northwestern returned back home to Miller Park over the weekend, where the Wildcats played host to Purdue in their second-to-last conference series of 2022. The ‘Cats came into the weekend with a conference record of 7-11, just a game behind the Boilermakers’ at 7-9, and needed a series win in order to jump into the conference’s eighth seed and position themselves to make the Big Ten Tournament.

Those postseason aspirations would be put on hold, however, as none of the Wildcat pitchers could seem to slow Purdue’s bats. Sean Sullivan allowed just one score in his first three innings pitched and struck out five batters, but the first-year ace was pulled in the fourth after allowing three quick runs. Coby Moe, Kellen Pate and Reed Smith all entered the game in relief, but the three combined to allow eight earned runs in their 5.2 innings pitched.

Northwestern actually was able to hit the ball decently well, scoring eight and staying within two runs of Purdue for much of the game, but it just couldn’t make up for the points the defense gave up. The Boilermakers took control of the series with the first win, 14-8.

The series wasn’t over yet, though, as Northwestern battled back to claim the second contest by a double-digit margin. The ‘Cats got on the board early, with two scores in the first and a reach on a fielding error in the third to put Northwestern up 3-0. Consecutive home runs by Calarco and Jay Beshears in the fifth inning doubled the Wildcats’ score, and they only continued to add to the total later. Calarco scored his second dinger of the game in the sixth, followed by D’Alise in the seventh as the ‘Cats pulled even in the series with an 11-1 victory.

The star of the show was graduate student Michael Farinelli, who pitched his first complete game of the season, allowing just one run. Farinelli struck out a season-high seven batters while only walking two to pick up his fifth win of the year. The victory was especially significant in the context of Farinelli’s nightmarish last outing, where he allowed seven earned runs in just two innings against Ohio State a week prior.

With a potential postseason spot on the line, Northwestern needed to defeat Purdue in the weekend’s final bout in order to keep pace in the Big Ten standings. Instead, the Wildcats’ hitting was completely stifled, not scoring a single run until the eighth inning. The Boilermakers only held a 2-0 lead heading into the sixth, thanks to a solid performance from first-year Grant Comstock, but a combination of five Wildcat relievers gave up five more runs in the remainder of the game. Purdue held on to claim the third game — and series — by the score of 7-2.

Just two days later, the Wildcats hosted No. 14 Notre Dame, and the outcome was not pretty. Sophomore David Utagawa had a tough start on the mound, allowing seven earned runs to the Fighting Irish in just two innings pitched. The bullpen didn’t give him much relief, allowing seven runs as well across three pitchers as the ‘Cats fell victim to the run rule, falling 14-4 to their ranked non-conference opponents.

The up and down theme of Northwestern’s spring has persisted ever since the beginning, from the team’s 2-10 overall start to its seven-game win streak that followed, as well as the season-long bobs above and below the .500 mark. While the midseason turnaround offered some hope for the Evanston faithful, the Wildcats are currently on the outside looking in at the Big Ten Tournament heading into the season finale matches at Minnesota.

Their series against Purdue certainly didn’t help, but if the Wildcats can take care of business against the lowly Golden Gophers (15-34, 5-16 Big Ten), then there are still a few ways Northwestern can qualify for the conference tournament. However, the ‘Cats will need some help.

If Northwestern wins two of three at Minnesota, the Wildcats need:

  1. Iowa to sweep Indiana OR
  2. Maryland to sweep Purdue

If Northwestern is able to sweep Minnesota, there are more options available. The Wildcats would need:

  1. Indiana to win one or less at Iowa OR
  2. Maryland to sweep Purdue OR
  3. Illinois to sweep Penn State OR
  4. Rutgers to sweep Michigan

None of these are particularly out of the question. Minnesota has the worst win percentage in the Big Ten, while Maryland, Rutgers, Iowa and Illinois are currently the four best teams by record. Any of those, however unlikely, could certainly happen. More importantly, the ‘Cats’ postseason hopes rest on the fact that they will be able to defeat Minnesota two or three times this weekend. Above all, these hopes require the Wildcats to become the one thing they haven’t been able to be: consistent.