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Baseball: Northwestern finds its first series win in late game rallies against Illinois

The ‘Cats are now .500 in Big Ten play and 3-1 at home.

Ryan Kuttler/Northwestern Athletics

To call this weekend much needed would be an understatement. Northwestern’s series win over Illinois was reinvigorating.

For the ‘Cats, their first home series of the season was a new start. They approached the weekend coming off a 12-0 shutout by Notre Dame and dropping to a 3-23 record. In this three-game set, however, Jim Foster found himself with more optimism than he has had all season due to outings from Matt McClure, Sam Garewal and Ben Grable on the mound and offensive production from beyond just Griffin Arnone, Alex Calarco and Stephen Hrustich.

The ‘Cats started and ended strong on Friday.

In the first inning, Arnone doubled and was sent home by Hrutisch. The one-run lead stood until the fourth inning, where McClure had trouble locating pitches. He hit two Illinois batters, and a wild pitch then moved both into scoring position. The Illini soon took a 2-1 lead, but the junior limited the damage, stranding two runners.

That one inning was the only real trouble McClure had in what was one of his better outings and a much-needed break for the bullpen. The righty threw 91 pitches over six innings, surrendering five hits and two runs. This marked his best start since Butler, where he picked up a win while giving up one run across seven innings. Quality starts like these are crucial, as Foster has regularly used at least four pitchers a game.

The ‘Cats came up in the bottom of the ninth with just four hits on the day, down by two runs after the Illini added one in the seventh.

Evan Minarovic got things started with a single. Calarco and Bennett Markinson also got on base off a walk and hit-by-pitch, allowing for Alex Roessner to score Minarovic.

The bases were loaded with two outs, as Cooper Foard stepped up to the plate in the one-run game. Foard, who had just one hit over his last six games, drove the ball to the left field corner to walk off the game, 4-3.

Game two looked different, as the Illini kept tacking on runs.

Over four innings, Michael Farinelli let up four runs — three earned — on seven hits. Coming off a dominant start against Purdue, where he gave up just one run on two hits over six innings, a shorter outing wasn’t desirable, but Garewal stepped up to the mound and changed the direction of the game.

Inheriting a runner on second base in the fifth inning, the lefty recorded an out and then struck out the next two. Garewal started his next time up with a walk, but in a similar fashion, recorded the first out on a groundout and struck out the following two. In two innings, the first-year set a new high of four strikeouts, which previously stood at three.

To match the revived energy brought to the game, Minarovic singled and stole second base. Calarco then added a double to drive the senior home and give NU its first run.

The top of the seventh and eighth innings were quick, with Garewal working fast to send three consecutive batters back to their dugouts. For the first out of the seventh, the California native struck out another to reach five strikeouts.

The Wildcats managed to cut the score in half in the eighth off an RBI from Hrustich, but the Illini sealed the game at 7-2 in the ninth. Garewal returned for his longest outing yet, but a dropped fly ball added two runs to the board for Illinois and another was tacked on before the inning ended. Of the three runs, only one was earned.

Northwestern didn’t go down without a fight, creating a bases-loaded situation. Going 2-for-9 with runners in scoring position, however, timely hitting wasn’t on its side, but offensive highlights were Minarovic and first-year Owen McElfatrick, who recorded three and two hits respectively. It certainly was a dominant day for the freshmen; on the other side, first-year Jake Swartz allowed only one run off four hits in five innings.

The series’ closer was a battle from the beginning. At the end of the first inning, Northwestern took a 3-1 lead thanks to a three-run homer from Hrustich.

Illinois tied the game in the fourth inning, but Northwestern retook a one-run lead in the fifth inning. Foard, who sat out the day before, doubled and advanced to third base, where Arnone scored him. Once again, that advantage was short-lived, with the game being equalized in the seventh.

Luke Benneche had the start, giving up four runs off seven hits, but his six innings were promising in terms of showing he can go the distance. The junior went five innings against Purdue, but previously, he only pitched a maximum of three frames in five games.

Ben Grable pitched three scoreless innings in relief, only allowing one hit. It was a strong performance for the righty, who has proven reliable.

The bottom of the eighth inning was all the excitement for the Wildcats. Hrustich and Markinson both singled to get on base, setting up a perfect scenario for McElfatrick to record his second homer and deliver a 7-4 victory.

Notching a series win to move to 3-3 in Big Ten Play is an effective way to help this team move forward and improve on a season that started off with such little success.

Getting length out of starters is necessary to win games. Farinelli has proven before that he can, and McClure and Benneche showed that they are capable too, but the real pitching performances worth noting were from Garewal and Grable. Garewal’s ninth inning could rather be disregarded when reflecting on how quickly he worked — impressive regardless of the fact that he’s a first-year.

Also worth noting, Illinois didn’t homer off any Wildcat pitching. Heading into the series, the Illini had home runs in seven straight games, and their 41 homers were the third-most in the Big Ten.

Offensively, it’s impressive that this team was able to produce with Arnone, the RBI leader, and Calarco, the hits leader, not having their typical showings. They had two and three hits, respectively, over the trio of games.

Hrustich continued his excellence at the plate. The captain extended his hitting streak to 12 and his batting average to .338. Foard, who started out the season batting .400 but now has been batting under .100 in his last eight games, had a dominant showing — in addition to his walk-off, he recorded three hits in the last game. Minarovic — playing in just seven games so far — and McElfatrick — who has gone 10-for-33 since March 22 — proved to be integral pieces, and consistency from them could make a major difference.

Northwestern heads back to Rocky and Berenice Miller Park to face UIC on Tuesday, before traveling to Nebraska this weekend.