Northern Illinois split its doubleheader against Ball State Saturday afternoon at Ralph McKinzie Field, getting a walk-off 10-9 win before falling 13-7 in Game Two of a three-game Mid-American Conference series.
With an overcast sky, intermittent misting and a steady 14 MPH wind out to right-center, the favorable hitting conditions led to a combined 39 runs on 46 hits, including three frames where one team scored at least five runs. The crooked number innings defined each game.
In Game One, NIU (25-23, 13-10 MAC) erupted for five runs in the bottom of the first to build a 5-0 lead, most of which came from the first of two home runs by Jeff Zimmerman. The rookie launched a three-run shot over the right field fence to highlight the inning.
However, even after NIU added two more in the fourth, Ball State (13-33, 9-13 MAC) countered with six runs in the sixth, capitalizing on a pair of Huskie errors that extended the inning. The main damage came off of a three-run homer of the Cardinals’ own, as Kenny Mahala hit a Zach Oates delivery over the right-center wall.
“I’ve been around this game long enough to know that you’re never comfortable with a lead, no matter how big,” said NIU head coach Ed Mathey. “We’ve done it before and had it done to us before. It was a hitter’s day today, obviously.”
Interestingly enough, all six runs (two earned) came off Oates, despite the fact that he had retired 13 batters in a row entering the frame.
Up 7-6, the Huskies added to their lead in the seventh after Zimmerman sent another ball out of the park, this time to center for two runs.
Once again, though, the Cardinals answered as they plated three in the eighth to set up NIU’s dramatic ninth, which was started by a Troy White leadoff walk. Down 0-2 in the count, Zimmerman continued his huge game by flipping a single to left to move the winning run to second.
After a Marvin Sanchez pinch-hit sacrifice bunt and Brett Frantini intentional walk, Alex Beckmann stepped to the plate against Scott Brothers Jr., and delivered. The junior lifted a sacrifice fly ball deep enough to left-center for left fielder Wes Winkle to have no chance to make a throw home, allowing White to cross the plate for the win.
Beckmann’s heroic play gave Kyle Glancy (1-0) his first win of the year, despite blowing his second save as he threw a wild pitch in the eighth to allow the tying run to score. The loss was given to Michael Sandman (1-3), who allowed one run on three hits and two walks in 1.2 innings before giving way to Brothers Jr.
Down 4-0 in Game Two, the Huskies looked as if they were taking control of the game in the sixth. Just like Ball State did in the first game, NIU put up six runs in the frame to overcome the large deficit.
But no one could have seen what was in store for the Huskies in the seventh: a nine-run inning for Ball State. The runs came off of four different Huskie pitchers as the Cardinals did it on six hits, three walks and two errors.
Down 13-6, the deficit was too large for NIU to overcome as the Huskies were only able to muster one more run for the rest of the game.
“Nines beat sixes all day long,” Mathey said. “We just couldn’t’ get momentum going after that inning. We got a run in the seventh but couldn’t’ get anymore. It just wasn’t our game.
“It’s hard, we had to get a stop. That’s the one thing about this game that is different than other sports. When you have a lead, you can’t just sit on it. You can’t kill the clock. The other team always has a chance to come up. We just couldn’t shut it down.”
With three innings of relief, Seth Hobbs (1-1) picked up the win after allowing one run on seven hits with three strikeouts and one walk. Trey Lang (0-1) took the loss for NIU, giving up three runs on three hits with one strikeout in 0.1 innings.
Coupled with the fact that Central Michigan has split its series with Western Michigan and Eastern Michigan has done the same with Toledo thus far this weekend, NIU’s split leaves the top of the MAC West Division standings the same as they were before the weekend. As the Huskies stand one game out of the second place tie between EMU and UT and two behind first place CMU, NIU needs a win tomorrow to clinch a spot in the league tournament for the first time in two years.
“We knew that we had played ourselves into this position two weeks ago at Central Michigan,” said Mathey. “Our goal is to win games instead of looking at the standings. Unfortunately, we did not accomplish our goal today, which was to win both games to get into the Mid-American Conference Tournament. If we win the series, we are in that tournament. Then you look at the other things because seeding is still up for grabs.”
Not only would a win help the Huskies achieve one of their primary season goals, it could go a long way in their seeding in the tournament, as the Huskies own tiebreakers over both EMU and UT, and have no games remaining against any of the three teams ahead of them.
The Huskies and Cardinals complete the series tomorrow at 1:05 p.m. CT. The scheduled pitching match-up features NIU RHP Tony Manville (7-1 | 4.79 ERA) versus BSU LHP Devin Wilburn (1-1 | 5.54 ERA).