Northern Illinois (21-30) played its final non-conference games of the season Tuesday night with a pair at UW-Milwaukee (28-19).
A strong finish at the end of Game One carried over into Game Two, but the Huskies dropped both contests, including their first in extra innings, 10-2 and 2-1 in eight innings.
“I was happy at the end of the first game because I talked to those guys about breaking the shutout and getting some momentum going heading into the second game. Game Two was a lot of fun; I know it’s hard to hear when we lost the ball game, but we were in the game. We had great chances,” head coach Ed Mathey said.
“I thought Justin Ruckman was outstanding in his first college start,” he added. “It was about making a decision about what’s important to us. We had to limit his pitch count so we could possibly have him out of the bullpen this weekend. Otherwise, we would have let him go.”
A freshman, Ruckman (Kankakee/Herscher) opened the contest with one of the Huskies’ top-pitching performances of the season. He stepped on the mound in the bottom of the first inning with a 1-0 lead from a pair of hits and a sacrifice fly by Micah McCulloch (Rochelle/Rochelle Township).
Ruckman would open the game with 4.1 hitless innings, finally surrendering a hit in the fifth on a bloop to Jamison Wells (Combined Locks, Wis./Kimberly) in center field. Ruckman threw 41 pitches, 30 for strikes in his effort (a .732 strike percentage).
Northern Illinois carried the lead throughout the game but surrendered that in the bottom of the sixth inning on a wild pitch to tie the game, 1-1. NIU prevented the tie earlier in the inning as Tommy Hook (Lockport/Lockport Township) and Johnny Zubek (Oak Forest/Oak Forest) helped turn a 5-2-3 double play with the bases loaded and no outs.
In the eighth, UWM hit a lead-off triple that forced the Huskies to intentionally load the bases with no outs to force a play at home plate. The Panthers’ Will Fadness would single up the middle to drive in the winning run, 2-1.
“We got some guys in the game who went into the game that don’t normally get that chance and they battled today. We had a good opportunity to win that second game, and I was happy with the effort given at the end of Game One,” Mathey said.
“Those are the type of games we’re going to see from here on out, and we need to be prepared for them” he added. “Hopefully this serves as a game that hones us and sharpens us up and gets us ready to go.”
In Game One of the day, Milwaukee had a 10-0 lead heading into the seventh inning.
NIU would earn a lead-off walk in the frame as Chris Divarco (Long Grove/Carmel Catholic) reached first and quickly advanced in scoring position on a wild pitch. A double by Wells two batters later would break the UWM shutout; following a stolen base by Wells to third, Nate Ruzich (Joliet/South Suburban College) would send a sacrifice fly to right field to finish the game, 10-2.
The Huskies will return to action Thursday afternoon for their final Mid-American Conference series of the regular season, taking on Ball State in Muncie, Ind., for the MAC West division championship. NIU is two games ahead of the Cardinals with three games remaining, reducing the Huskies’ “magic number” to one.