With the help of seven runs in the fifth and sixth innings and an eight-run eighth Sunday afternoon, Northern Illinois took down Ball State 18-8 at Ralph McKinzie Field during Senior Day.
The three-game series rubber match win clinched the Huskies’ first appearance in the Mid-American Conference Tournament since 2008, and gave them their sixth conference series win in eight tries.
“It’s a big thing,” NIU head coach Ed Mathey said of the MAC tournament berth. “Our kids truly believe we need to be there on a regular basis. We haven’t been there in a couple years and we needed to be there. It’s a big deal to us and we hope to continue to do this on a yearly basis.”
Despite 28 MPH wind gusts toward right-center, NIU starter Tony Manville was able to keep Ball State (13-34, 9-14 MAC) in check as the Huskies (26-23, 14-10 MAC) took advantage of the favorable hitter conditions. NIU put up 18 runs on a season-high 19 hits, marking its seventh game with 10-plus runs, and launched a season-high four home runs.
“It was definitely a hitter’s day, a hitter’s weekend, actually,” Mathey said.
After giving up four runs through four innings, Manville settled in just in time for his offense to help him out. Down 4-3 in the bottom of the fifth, Jamison Wells knotted the game with his first career home run, a liner over the left-center wall, with one out.
Following consecutive singles by Cory Krupp and Alex Jones, Joe Etcheverry doubled home a run down the right field line. Troy White then delivered a two-run single up the middle to cap the scoring on the four-run frame, leaving NIU ahead 7-4.
The Huskies kept the bats going in the sixth with an impressive two-out rally. With two outs after a Jake Hermsen leadoff single, Jones singled and Etcheverry reached on a fielding error by shortstop T.J. Baumet, which allowed a run to score.
Following a pitching change, Michael Sandman threw a wild pitch to move both runners up. Once again, White cashed in by hitting another two-run single, this time to right-center.
“The runs we got in the fifth and sixth innings were big,” Mathey said. “We had good approaches and the middle of the lineup was driving in runs. That’s a good thing because it means the guys ahead of them are getting on base and both parts of the lineup were doing their jobs.”
With his offense rolling, eventually breaking out for eight runs in the eighth inning on seven hits, Manville (8-1) held the Cardinals scoreless in the fifth, sixth and seventh innings to finish his outing strongly. In picking up his eighth straight win, the junior allowed the four runs on nine hits and three walks with four strikeouts in his seven innings of work. In his first season as a Huskie, the Iowa transfer’s eight wins rank in a tie for second on the NIU all-time single season list.
“I have to tip my hat to Tony Manville,” Mathey said. “He kept us in it and started to hit smooth sailing after the fourth inning. He did a great job for us, but our bats were up to the task today.
“(His eight-game winning streak) is pretty good anywhere, in college or the pros. He did a good job today because they made him work. They got some hits on him in those first few innings, but he battled. I’m very happy for him.”
Ball State starter Devin Wilburn (1-2) was tagged with the loss after he surrendered seven runs on eight hits and a walk with two strikeouts in 4.1 innings.
Adding to the fun of the day for NIU was the fact that nearly all eight seniors contributed, especially the position players, in their final home game as Huskies. Krupp went 2-for-5 with two runs and a walk; Etcheverry was 2-for-6 with two runs and an RBI; Marvin Sanchez was 1-for-1 with a run scored; Kevin Smith was 1-for-1 with an RBI and run scored; Tom Kotis walked and scored.
The two Huskies that stole the show, however, were a pair of juniors: White and Jones.
The two combined to go 8-for-12 with nine RBI, six runs and two home runs. White himself drove in seven as he hit his third long ball of the season and of his career, going 4-for-6 at the plate. The seven-RBI performance was the second of the season for the third baseman, as he also accomplished the career-best feat on April 17 at Ohio in Game Two of a doubleheader. Jones went 4-for-6 as well, scoring a career-high four times and blasting his third homer.
“The hits Troy had in the fifth and sixth innings were huge,” Mathey said. “They were solid run-producing hits. The game could have been completely different if he didn’t get those hits.”
Already in the MAC Tournament, NIU can now focus on making a run at the West crown. After first place Central Michigan was rained out and Eastern Michigan’s 2-1 series win over Toledo in a second place battle, NIU now stands in third place, just one game behind second place EMU and 1.5 games behind CMU.
“Now we get a chance,” Mathey said. “The MAC season is kind of like a baseball game; it’s nine weekends. Now we are in the tournament and in the ninth inning, we can focus on getting the West Division. We have a shot at it. We are going to need a little help, but it’s in our hands.”
The Huskies return to action Tuesday, May 17, with a pair of seven-inning contests against UW-Milwaukee on the road before traveling to Western Michigan for their final MAC regular season series.