May 20, 2010
DeKALB, Ill. - Northern Illinois took care of its first order of business en route to a possible postseason bid by hanging on for a 7-5 win over Western Michigan Thursday on a soggy afternoon at Ralph McKinzie Field.
In the first game of a regular season-ending three-game Mid-American Conference series, the Huskies (22-31, 10-15 MAC) overcame two early deficits to keep their MAC Tournament hopes alive. Entering the day in ninth place and looking to finish the weekend in the eighth and final spot of the tournament, NIU already got help from one opponent today as Bowling Green defeated Buffalo 10-8. The Huskies needed the ninth-place Bulls to lose one game to the Falcons to leap ahead of UB in the standings if NIU can complete the sweep. To qualify for the postseason, the Huskies now need eighth-place Miami (Ohio) to get swept by Ohio. The first game of that series is being played this evening.
"It was a thing where we never let them get too far ahead of us," said NIU head coach Ed Mathey. "We always had an answer for them and that was a big part of this win. Their pitcher Casey Webber, I know he was excited because he's an Illinois kid, but he can get you to roll balls over and chase pitches out of the zone. We showed good zone discipline though. We needed the offense today because the defense was a bit loose."
After WMU (12-39, 5-20) scored two unearned runs in the first inning, the Huskies answered in the bottom of the third to tie. With the bases loaded and no outs, Jamison Wells brought a run in on a sacrifice fly to right, scoring Brett Frantini, who reached on a single to left. Joe Buonavolanto followed by beating out a near-double play ball to second, allowing Jake Hermsen to score after getting on base with a walk.
In their next at-bat, the Broncos broke the 2-2 tie by adding two more runs with the help of two more NIU errors. With runners on second and third and one out, a check swing grounder to first off the bat of Brooks Beilke turned into two runs for WMU. Dave Reynolds fielded the ball to his right and tossed it to pitcher Chuck Lukanen, but Lukanen was late getting to first base and the ball sailed behind him. Ryan McMillin had already scored from third, and after seeing the ball get away, Tim Cross rounded third. Second baseman Buonavolanto scrambled to the ball and hurried a throw home, but it sailed to the backstop, allowing Beilke to move into second. However, no further damage was done as Lukanen recovered, inducing Jimmy Martinez into a grounder to second and freezing Grant Simotes.
As they have been doing a lot lately, the Huskies bounced right back, taking a 5-4 lead in the bottom half with a one-out three-run home run from Frantini. The sophomore's second homer of the season, and of his career, was a line drive down the left field line and just went over the fence, scoring Jordin Hood and Joe Etcheverry after both reached on singles to start the NIU fourth.
"Brett was looking for a pitch to drive and he sure drove it," said Mathey of Frantini's blast on another windy day at Ralph McKinzie Field. "He hit it solid and that was about the only ball I thought could get out of here today: a low line drive to the left field line. I was just hoping it had enough to stay fair and it did."
Both teams then exchanged runs in the sixth as NIU countered Simotes' two-out RBI single with a one-out RBI single by Reynolds, scoring Hood after a leadoff double.
"Hood led off with a double and moved over on a passed ball," Mathey said. "Then Dave got down in the count, but did a nice job of getting enough of that ball to get it to the outfield. That was a big run."
In the seventh, it was the NIU defense that made a statement, making up for the early errors by preventing the tying run from scoring. Lukanen started the frame and got an out before hitting Jack Scanlon with a pitch, causing Mathey to turn to Zach Oates. The righty gave up a double to the first batter, McMillin, but Hermsen got to it quickly in right field and threw to Buonavolanto, who delivered a strike to catcher Frantini at the plate to tag Scanlon, who did not slide on the play.
"That was a big play," said Mathey. "Jake got on the ball quick and got it to Joe. Joe made a good, accurate throw to Brett and Brett did a nice job of catching it and sealing the plate on the guy who didn't slide. That proved to be a big out for us and a big non-run for them. That was a good defensive play by us."
Keeping the momentum on NIU's side, Hood added an insurance run in the bottom of the seventh with a two-out double down the left field line to score Buonavolanto after reaching on a fielder's choice bunt.
Oates then finished the game to pick up his first save of the season and lock down the win for Lukanen (5-8). In 2.2 innings, Oates gave up just the double, while also allowing a walk and striking out two. Lukanen gave up five runs, only two earned, in 6.1 innings on 10 hits. The lefty also walked two and struck out four.
"It was Chuck's last start at home and of his career here so he might have been a little bit nervous," Mathey said. "He just wasn't quite as sharp, he was behind guys and threw a lot of pitches. But he does what he does: he goes out and competes. He gives us a chance to win by going out there and battling. That's one thing he brings to this staff is that mentality and I hope the younger pitchers on this staff see that and understand what that can do for you.
"Zach Oates was very good today. He was throwing strikes and working ahead. The one time he walked a guy, he got a ground ball for a double play right after it. He did a great job back there."
Despite going the distance, WMU starter Webber (3-4) was handed the loss, surrendering seven runs on 11 hits and one walk with six strikeouts.
Frantini and Hood, who also had a steal, paced the offense with three hits and two runs apiece. Wells also had a multi-hit game with two singles.
The teams will play Game Two of the series tomorrow at 3:05 p.m. CST and will wrap the MAC regular season Saturday at 1:05 p.m. on "Senior Day."