Postseason college baseball was at its finest on Friday morning at VA Memorial Stadium.
Unfortunately for No. 4 Northern Illinois, it was on the wrong end of a 10-inning, 12-11 game against No. 5 Eastern Michigan in a Mid-American Conference Tournament elimination contest.
In all, the best game of the tournament thus far took three-hours and 11 minutes, featuring two lead changes and three ties as the teams combined for 23 runs on 37 hits with only two errors, both on EMU. Prior to the game, neither team had scored more than four runs in four games against each other.
Even the weather changed as the day started with an overcast sky, moved to sprinkles, and then ended with the sun shining.
“It was a great baseball game,” said NIU head coach Ed Mathey. “The result is not what we wanted but it was two baseball teams fighting and slugging it out. I’m proud of our effort.
“When they took the lead, it would’ve been easy for us to fold shop. We didn’t, though. We got the run to tie it and had a great chance to end it. It just didn’t work our way.”
With NIU (30-27) leading 10-6 entering the ninth inning, National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association Stopper of the Year watch list member Kyle Glancy came on to relieve Alex Klonowski after the freshman logged a career-high 5.1 innings of solid relief, retiring nine in a row at one point.
With two on and one out, Glancy induced Tucker Rubino into what looked to be an inning ending double play that would have ended the game in NIU’s favor. However, as Glancy fielded a grounder right back at him, he did not throw to Alex Jones, who was covering the bag. Instead he ended up throwing to Alex Beckmann, who caught it five feet to the right of the bag and quickly threw to first for an out.
“Alex Klonowski did a wonderful job to get us in position to win,” Mathey said. “He was tiring a bit in the eighth and I figured it was time to go to Kyle. Unfortunately, he didn’t’ have it today. I think some of it was physical, some was emotional. He threw to the wrong man covering second. If he throws to the right guy, I think we get a double play and are out of the game. I think he was reeling a bit in the back of his head.
“Unfortunately, Eastern Michigan is that type of team that believes in themselves and keeps fighting, a lot like our team. They weren’t giving in.”
Leaving the door open, Sam Ott capitalized for the Eagles (36-21) with a two-out, two-run single to center that cut the deficit in half. Then the Huskies had another near game-ender as Daniel Russell lined a ball just off the glove of a diving Beckmann.
“The guy hits one off the barrel and Alex Beckmann makes a heck of an effort, but it goes just off his glove,” said Mathey. “It’s a game of inches.”
After a Lee Longo RBI single to center put the go-ahead run at first, Kyle Peterson smashed a two-run double to center before Zach Badgley came in and was able to get Ken Battiston to ground out to end the frame only down by one run, 11-10.
Then EMU closer Kristian Calibuso took his chance on saving the game, and like Glancy, was unable to do so. The Huskie ninth started with Joe Etcheverry reaching on an errant throw by shortstop Rubino that moved the senior, and tying run, to second base as the ball bounced into the first base bleachers.
Two outs later, Mathey called on senior Kevin Smith to pinch-hit, and the moved worked as he singled through the left side to knot the game, 11-11. However, NIU was unable to push the winning run across during the two-out rally.
In the 10th, the Eagles struck with two outs again. Rubino roped a double down the left field line to score Brent Ohrman, who led off with a single.
As was the nature of the game, NIU did not go down without a fight.
A home run shy of the cycle, Jamison Wells started the inning with his fifth hit of the game, tying a tournament record. After a Cory Krupp sacrifice bunt and wild pitch, Jones came to the plate and drew a walk.
As a result, Calibuso (3-0) was given the win after two innings of relief, allowing an unearned run on two hits and two walks with two strikeouts. Badgley (0-2) was handed the loss after giving up a run on two hits in 0.2 innings.
Not factoring in the decision were both starters: EMU’s Corey Chaffins and NIU’s Tony Manville. Riding a nation’s 12th best nine-game winning streak, Manville threw three innings, surrendering five runs on nine hits and one walk with two strikeouts.
“Obviously Tony Manville didn’t have the start that he and we wanted him to have, but you have to give credit to Eastern Michigan,” said Mathey. “They made some adjustments and swung the bats.”
To grab their lead, the Huskies rallied for four runs in the second inning after going 0-for-4 with runners in scoring position in the first two innings. NIU then went two crazy, scoring a pair in each of the third, fourth and fifth frames.
The bulk of NIU’s damage came from its No. 9-1-2 hitters.
Tom Kotis, Wells and Krupp combined to go 12-for-15 with seven RBI and five runs. Wells led the way, going 5-for-6 with three RBI, two runs and a steal in his best career game. Krupp also had a career-high hit total by going 4-for-4 with an RBI and a steal, ending the season a perfect 14-for-14 in steal attempts. Kotis tied a career-best with three RBI and set a personal high mark with three hits in five at-bats, scoring three times to boot. He started the fourth inning with his second career homer, a shot well over the right field fence.
2011 MAC Freshman of the Year Jeff Zimmerman put his stamp on the game as well, launching his 11th home run. The majestic two-run shot to right-center in the third inning moved the rookie into a tie for fourth on the NIU single season list and marked the second time this year that he homered in consecutive games.
Despite the loss, all was not lost for NIU as the 2011 campaign will go down as a season to remember. For just the fourth time in school history, the Huskies reached the 30-win plateau. For just the second time in program lore, NIU had four All-MAC selections. And for the first time, NIU baseball had a freshman crowned as the league’s top rookie.
Among the many other accomplishments, the Huskies also had a national presence. Two players (Jones and Glancy) were on national watch lists and are still in the running for national awards, and Jeremy Gonzales earned a national pitcher of the week nod.
“These kids just did a great job,” Mathey said of the season. “The seniors did an outstanding job of making this thing a team. They did the right things, not just on the field; they did it with the right preparation and trusted in each other and were not selfish. That’s what it takes. We got on some rolls and we have talent here. It’s hard to end a season any time. With this group, it’s hard to say goodbye because they did such a wonderful job.”
Now that the NCAA season is over for NIU, the returning players will head to various collegiate summer wooden bat leagues across the country to keep improving their games as they hope to return in 2012 to go even further in the MAC Tournament, and perhaps beyond.