By Brendan Preisman

In their second Big Ten series of the season, the Northwestern Wildcats showed a spark that had previously been absent in a 3-20 start to the year.

After this weekend, the ‘Cats now have  a winning record at home, a .500 record in the Big Ten, and (don’t look now) have gone 4-4 in their last eight games. 

But this series over Illinois, which was the first series the team had won all year, offers a lot of promise for the final month or so of the season. 

Game One

The series opened with a defensive slugfest, which traditionally is not Northwestern’s style. Their losses in close games with combined run totals under 10 include setbacks to Gardner-Webb, Presbyterian, Louisiana Tech, Butler, and Purdue. However, in this game the pitching staff was more than up to the challenge. Matt McClure had one of his best appearances of the year, getting his second quality start by lasting six innings and only giving up two runs. McClure allowed just three hits through three innings before giving up two consecutive walks and a double, but was able to bounce back from that and only allowed 3 more base runners before his day concluded after six innings.

However, when the man who would eventually take the victory for the ‘Cats, Coby Moe, came on, things appeared bleak. Moe gave up a massive shot to Illinois’ Branden Comia that rolled to the wall, but Stephen Hrustich and Owen McElfatrick combined for a sweet relay that got Comia out at third. From there, Moe allowed just two baserunners (both on walks), and earned two strikeouts to close out the top of the ninth with Northwestern clinging to life and facing a 3-1 deficit.

The Wildcats quickly jumped all over Illini reliever TJ Constertina, with Evan Minarovic slapping a single and Alex Calarco drawing a walk. After a flyout and a hit by pitch, Alex Roessner earned an RBI groundout. McElfatrick walked, and the game was in the hands of Cooper Foard, who stepped up to the plate with the bases loaded and two outs. The graduate student from San Francisco knocked a single to left, and Calarco and pinch-runner Andrew Pinkston came around to score, giving Northwestern a stunning walk-off win. The 4-3 victory was a much needed palate cleanser after losing in extra innings to Purdue and getting shut out by Notre Dame.

Game Two

Unfortunately for the ‘Cats, the momentum from the stunning walk-off didn’t carry over. Michael Farinelli earned the start but got rocked early, giving up four runs (three earned) through four innings of work. And despite a three-hit game from Minarovic and Hrustich extending his hitting streak to 11 games (a career best), the offense didn’t provide much help. Northwestern left nine men on base in the game and was just 1-of-8 with runners in scoring position. Sam Garewal had an excellent start to his relief duties, allowing just one runner past first in his first three innings of work, but dealt with lots of issues in the ninth. A walk and a single were compounded by a drop from Griffin Arnone, and the Illini were able to push across three more runs in the ninth en route to a 7-2 win. It would all come down to…

Game Three

The offensive fireworks were evident in this game from the get-go. Illinois had three singles in the first to take a 1-0 lead, but Hrustich responded with a three-run bomb in the home half of the inning to give the lead to the Wildcats. The teams settled in from there before a double from Comia (who went 3-of-10 in the series) in the fourth inning scored Camden Janik, who reached base on a hit by pitch. Comia was then brought home by Cal Hejza, who had four hits in nine plate appearances, including a 2-of-4 day on Sunday. 

However, the ‘Cats were able to flash their claws in the next inning. Griffin Arnone had struggled mightily in the series, but was able to bring home Foard with a single after the latter doubled. The ‘Cats seemed to be heading for another 4-3 win before the seventh inning. After allowing two baserunners to start the inning, Luke Benneche was able to get three outs, but not without letting one of the runners score. 

But once again, it took Northwestern just one inning to bounce back. Hrustich, who was Mr. Everything in the series, got on base in the eighth, and he was followed two batters later by Bennett Markinson. With two on and two out, McElfatrick came to the plate. On the first pitch, the first-year righty sent the ball into the stratosphere over the left-field fence. The three-run shot would prove to be the dagger, and after Ben Grable finished the day with a 1-2-3 ninth inning to earn his first win of the season, it was official. The Wildcats had won not merely the game, but the series. 

While it’s still far too early to say winning a series against a .500 Illinois team who also ranks near the bottom of the Big Ten in most statistical categories completely turns around the season, it’s definitely true that the ‘Cats were able to get a lot of clutch hits last weekend. If the pitching continues to show improvement and the hitting remains consistent, many more series wins may be in this team’s future. Not bad for a squad that started 0-12.