After an unscheduled 10-day layoff from competition, Northern Illinois baseball used the break to find its groove as the Huskies returned to action Wednesday to win a pair of games over North Dakota and St. Louis at Billiken Sports Center.
The triumphs marked the first two of the season for NIU in the midst of a tough season opening 16-game stretch away from home.
“I think the layoff gave the guys time to reflect and think about, ‘hey what is it we are doing well and what do we need to improve upon.’ At the end of the day, we want to get out and play, though,” said NIU head coach Ed Mathey. “The only way to win games and get better is to play. Our first 10 games were challenging. We hope it pays off for us and makes us better down the road.”
The Huskies (2-10) started the day with a 4-0 shutout against UND (1-10), as Jeremy Gonzales put together the best outing of his season. Improving his record to 1-3, the senior blanked the Fighting Sioux for six frames while allowing four walks and four hits with a season-best six strikeouts. UND needed three-plus innings to get a runner to second base on Gonzales, who craftily worked his way out of jams in his final three frames.
Following Gonzales’ lead, the bullpen trio of Tom Zelasko, Alex Klonowski and Zach Badgley each worked a scoreless inning to cap off NIU’s first combined shutout since March 7, 2009, at Southern Illinois.
“The pitchers were efficient today,” Mathey said. “I’d love to see [Gonzales] pitch ahead a little more. He was battling, though. He could have made it a little easier on himself and his old coach. He made pitches when he needed to. We needed something like this to get us going. It was great to see. Our bullpen was good, too.”
The rewarding win didn’t come into reach for Gonzales until the Huskies scored in the fourth and fifth innings – the only two innings the NIU offense did damage. After missing on a first inning scoring opportunity, NIU cashed in with an RBI single by Joe Etcheverry in the fourth, plating Troy White, who reached on a single and stole second.
In the fifth, Brett Frantini drew a one-out walk and advanced to second on second baseman Kris Kwak’s error while fielding a ball hit by Marvin Sanchez. Frantini then came around to score on a Jamison Wells single. Alex Jones followed with a two-run single to score Sanchez and Wells, making UND pay for the miscue.
“It was a big at-bat, big time to keep adding on,” said Mathey of Jones’ insurance hit. “You want to capitalize on all the run opportunities you get. That was a big hit for us and Alex Jones. It was what we needed.”
Extending his career-best hitting streak to six games, Wells was the catalyst of the offense with two hits in four at-bats and two stolen bases as the Huskies pushed UND starter Sam Anderson to 0-2. Anderson surrendered four runs (three earned) on five hits and two walks with three strikeouts in 4.1 innings.
NIU’s second victory of the day came behind a six-run sixth inning that backed a stellar effort from starter Tom Barry. The junior southpaw threw four unblemished innings before giving up a run in each of the fifth and sixth frames. In improving to 1-0, Barry gave up the two runs on seven hits and four walks with four strikeouts over 5.2 innings.
“Tom was outstanding today,” Mathey said. “He’s been battling back from a little bit of a tender arm. He’s getting to the point where we can let him go longer in games now. What he did tonight against a pretty good running team — St. Louis likes to run and force action — He did a great job of changing his looks and his sets. He really neutralized what St. Louis likes to do on the bases.”
The Huskies supported Barry with an RBI single that scored Jeff Zimmerman, who reached on a double, giving NIU a brief 1-0 lead in the fifth.
NIU then exploded for its best scoring frame of the season in its next at-bat. With the bases loaded, Zimmerman roped another double to score White and Etcheverry to score after reaching on singles. After reloading the bases, Brian Riegler knocked an RBI single. On the next play, Zimmerman scored on a wild pitch and Alex Beckmann, who reached on a hit-by-pitch, followed by scoring on a throwing error by catcher Marco DiRoma. Two errors later, Riegler came around to score as Jones reached on the miscue by short stop Jon Myers.
“That sixth inning was huge for us in terms of getting out in front and scoring some runs, taking advantage of errors and getting some hits,” Mathey said.
The three error-inning cost Zack Smith the loss (2-2) after allowing three runs on five hits in 5.1 innings.
SLU (11-5) answered with a run in the bottom of the sixth before Klonowski took over on the mound to throw an impressive 2.2 innings of perfect baseball, striking out two in his second scoreless appearance of the day.
“Alex Klonowski was outstanding all day,” Mathey said of the rookie. “He made good pitches to get out of the sixth inning of the second game and did well to get to the ninth.”
In the 7-3 win, three Huskies tallied multiple hits apiece – Jones (2), White (2) and Zimmerman (3). Zimmerman was the most proficient, going 3-for-4 with two runs and two RBI.
The Huskies resume their spring break swing with a 7:30 p.m. contest today against Illinois at Rent One Park in Marion, Ill., home of the Southern Illinois Miners. NIU will wear special green St. Patrick’s Day jerseys that will later be auctioned off Sunday, March 27, at Fatty’s Pub & Grille in DeKalb.
For more information on NIU baseball and Huskie athletics, visit www.niuhuskies.com.