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Baseball: ‘Cats take 2-of-3 at Minnesota but fail to advance to postseason

For the fourth season in a row, Northwestern won’t make an appearance in the B1G Tournament.

Heading into the final weekend of the regular season, Northwestern baseball could not control its playoff destiny. That’s never a good thing, and it proved to be the decisive factor that kept the team out of the Big Ten Tournament for the fourth straight season. Although the ‘Cats (24-27, 10-14 B1G) won their series against Minnesota, a Purdue-Maryland cancellation and Nebraska’s 10-9 victory over Michigan State on May 21 eliminated them from postseason contention.

Northwestern could have bolstered its tournament chances with a sweep but lost a wild 15-14 affair against the Golden Gophers in the series opener on Thursday. A first-inning home run by Riley Swenson propelled Minnesota to an early 3-0 lead. However, the Wildcats clawed back and evened the score at four in the third when Ethan O’Donnell clobbered a three-run homer of his own. Two frames later, Ruben Fontes hit another dinger with Jay Beshears on base to give the ‘Cats a 6-5 lead.

Minnesota immediately answered with eight runs in the next two innings to build a 13-6 lead. Fontes chipped away at the deficit in the seventh with his second homer of the day, a three-run blast that drew Northwestern within four. The Gophers added an insurance run in the inning’s home half before a crazy eighth inning.

The ‘Cats quickly loaded the bases to set the table for Anthony Calarco’s RBI single. Then Beshears hammered a game-tying grand slam to left field, tying the score at 14. But, the two-way player surrendered a run on a fielder’s choice in the bottom of the eighth, giving Minnesota a lead it would not relinquish. The crushing defeat left the ‘Cats in a win-or-go-home scenario for the remainder of the series.

Northwestern responded to that adversity well the next day with an 11-9 win. After Calarco belted a two-run homer in the first inning, the Wildcats erupted for eight runs in the fourth to build up a 10-1 lead. Minnesota put a dent into it late with a four-run ninth inning, but the ‘Cats held on to take the win. Calarco finished 3-for-6 with two RBIs, while first-year Drewbie Pinkston went 2-for-3 and drove in two. On the defensive side, Michael Farinelli got every out but one in his 128-pitch effort before giving up four runs in the ninth inning.

NU’s tournament hopes stayed alive for a few more hours until Nebraska’s win over Michigan State the next day put those to bed. With the win, the Cornhuskers improved to 10-14 in the Big Ten and ensured they would finish over the 9-14 ‘Cats. That meant Northwestern could finish no higher than ninth in the Big Ten, eliminating them from postseason contention along with the Purdue-Maryland cancelation.

Regardless, the Wildcats came to play in the season finale and defeated Minnesota 8-5. The Golden Gophers jumped out to a 5-0 lead and shut out Northwestern through seven innings. A Fontes single and a pinch-hit base hit by Alex Roessner cut the lead to three. NU was in position to do even more damage but left runners stranded in scoring position.

The team made up for that in the ninth though, putting up six runs to take the lead. Calarco kicked scoring off with a two-run homer, then Fontes doubled home the tying and go-ahead runs. Tommy D’Alise and J.C. Santini followed that up with a pair of RBI singles to provide some insurance. That put junior reliever Jack Sauser in position to earn the first win of his Northwestern career.

The series win marked an encouraging end to the season for the Wildcats, who began the season 2-10 overall and suffered a five-game losing streak at the beginning of May. While Northwestern will miss the postseason, its 10-14 conference record is a narrow improvement from its 15-21 mark in 2021.