It may not signal a return to the glory days of Amos Alonzo Stagg, but for the first time in school history, baseball will finish its season undefeated in the Big 10.
Behind a dominating, three-hit shutout from third-year ace Joe Pankow, Chicago (18–11–1) played D-I Northwestern (12–31–1) to a scoreless, rain-shortened tie Wednesday in Evanston. With the draw—the first such decision for Chicago since a 1996 matchup with Case ended in a twilight-induced 7–7 stalemate—coupled with an 8–4 senior day-win Tuesday against North Central (10–24–1), the Maroons have now lost just twice in their last 14 games.
Chicago held a 12-game all-time edge against the Wildcats heading into Wednesday’s showdown but entered the contest as a definitive underdog in its first game of the year against scholarship athletes. Northwestern may not be an athletic powerhouse, but the program has produced a handful of Major League regulars, including former All-Star Mark Loretta and current New York Yankees Manager Joe Girardi. But if the Maroons were supposed to be intimidated, no one told Pankow.
Pankow needed just five innings to toss his first shutout of 2009, and while the rain helped his cause on that front, he dispatched the Wildcats with an uncommon efficiency. Northwestern’s free-swinging approach was a perfect fit for Pankow, a righty who rarely blows away hitters, but excels at enticing batters to whack at pitches they probably shouldn’t.
The Naperville native exhibited nearly impeccable control, tossing 33 of his 39 pitches for strikes and fanning two while walking none. Only one Northwestern hitter hung around the batters box long enough to see a ball two, and the Wildcats showed no signs of figuring out Pankow as the game progressed, either—Chicago’s starter dispatched the heart of the Wildcat order in the fourth on just four pitches.
Third-year center fielder Kenneth Avila, the only Wildcat to see more than four pitches from Pankow, had a chance to put the home nine on top in the bottom of the second, but Pankow pitched himself out of the jam with some help from his defense. After first-year first baseman Paul Snieder led off with a single that whizzed past the head of the Chicago hurler, fourth-year left fielder Tony Vercelli advanced up a base with a single of his own.
Pankow helped himself with a smart defensive play, inducing first-year catcher Geoff Rowan to ground meekly right back to him, and then going to second to start a 1-6–3 double play. With two away and Snieder on third, Avila worked a 2–2 count, before taking a called third strike with a fastball low and away.
The right-hander credited last year’s pre-season tour of Japan with preparing him for big-game competition.
“Going out there you always have a little bit of nerves, but nothing compared to Waseda,” Pankow said. “Any pitcher [who] can locate and change speeds is going to be successful.”
Northwestern’s answer to Pankow, first-year righty Francis Brooke, was nearly as effective, however, limiting the Maroons to three hits over five innings before being pulled to start the sixth. Chicago’s bats threatened to break through in the third and fourth frames but couldn’t push a run across.
With one away in the third, second-year second baseman Nicholas Fazzari singled and moved up to second on a rare catcher’s interference call. With two on and fourth-year centerfielder Kyle Schmitt stepping to the plate, the Maroons looked to be on the verge of a breakthrough. But Schmitt, who entered the game batting .407 on the season, grounded the first pitch he saw from Brooke to the left side to start an inning-ending double play.
Fourth-year first baseman Scott Hofer gave the Maroons hope again in the fourth, coming within a few feet of a home run on a slicing line drive to right field off of Brooke with one out. Hofer settled for a wall-ball double, though, and went no further, as first-year designated hitter Trace Capps grounded to shortstop and first-year third baseman Williams grounded out to kill the rally.
That was the last scoring chance the Maroons would have, as the skies opened again before the bottom of the sixth, and the umpires called the game shortly thereafter.
“The whole team wanted to finish the game. Everyone thought that we had a better chance of scoring a run off their pitcher than they had of getting a run off Pankow,” Schmitt said. “He was dealing. We wanted that win, and we were in a position to get it, if the rain hadn’t interfered.”
In the week’s earlier action against North Central, Chicago gave its seniors a sterling sendoff from J. Kyle Anderson Field, thumping 13 hits to power past the Cardinals.
After conceding two runs in the top of the first, the Maroons stormed back with a run in the second and three in the third to take the lead for good off of North Central starter Tyler Herman (0–3, 6.00). Schmitt led the way for Chicago with three hits, an RBI, and a run scored from the leadoff spot, while Williams went two for three with a double and three RBIs.
Fourth-year Alex Gallan (1–1, 9.15) took the victory for Chicago, allowing three runs on six hits and two walks over five innings. First-year Alex Garcia (0–1, 7.36) pitched the final four frames for the home side to earn his first career save, conceding just one run on five hits and two walks. Herman lasted just three innings, allowing four runs—three earned—on seven hits and four walks to go with two hit batsmen.
Gallan, pitching in front of the home crowd for the final time, called the victory “bittersweet.”
“I was really looking forward to having a successful senior year, but I have been battling elbow problems, so it felt great to get that first win,” Gallan said. “I definitely had some extra nerves knowing that it would probably be the last game I pitch in my college career. It put a chip on my shoulder.”
Although the squad’s late surge may not assure them of a spot in the NCAA tournament, Chicago will look to continue its strong finish this weekend with a doubleheader at IIT (22–22) and a twin-bill rematch with North Central Sunday in Naperville.