NIU baseball: Huskies’ 9th-inning comeback attempt falls short

By Steve Shonder

Baseball (14-22, 4-8 MAC) put the winning run on base in the bottom of the ninth, but it wasn’t able to pull off a comeback on Wednesday.

The Huskies fell to the Bradley Braves (24-9), 12-11, at Ralph McKinzie Field. NIU had its offense clicking for the second game in a row, picking up 16 hits, but the Braves were in the zone at the plate. The two teams took turns exchanging the lead until Bradley took it for good in the seventh inning.

“I thought, overall, the last few days, we battled,” said head coach Mike Kunigonis. “Today, we battled, and we did a good job of putting ourselves in a position to win. We shook the lineup up a little bit, and some guys who didn’t have opportunities before stepped up.”

Bradley took a 1-0 lead that held until the third inning, when the Huskies finally broke through with a pair of runs. Freshman Joe Boyle scored his first run when a hit from sophomore Jason Gasser took a big hop over the shortstop.

The Braves bounced back in the top of the fourth with a run to tie the game, but the Huskies came back with a run of their own in the bottom half of the inning. Senior Micah McCulloch scored on a check-swing double from redshirt junior Alex Smith.

While the Huskies’ offense was firing on all cylinders, they weren’t able to keep the Braves off the board, which cost them when Bradley pitcher Stephen Toma sent NIU down 1-2-3 in the seventh and eighth innings.

Headed into the bottom of the ninth, the Braves had stretched out their lead to four, but the Huskies responded by scoring three runs before the first out. After they put the tying and the winning base runners in scoring position, junior Johnny Zubek fouled out to end the game.

“It says we’re not giving up,” Kunigonis said. “It says we’re going to continue to fight until the end. I thought we were due for a nice walk-off there, but it happens. I’m happy that we battled because if you keep battling like that good things will happen.”

At the plate

Sophomore Carl Russell went 3-5 at the plate, including a bases-clearing triple in the fifth that put the Huskies up 7-4 at the time. Russell had only previously recorded two hits in his 15 at-bats this season, both of them coming against the Illinois-Chicago Flames on Tuesday.

“Carl got an opportunity and he made the best of it,” Kunigonis said. “He did an awesome job, and he’s one of the big reasons we were still in this game. How many RBIs did he have in this game? [Five]. He was unbelievable.”

Russell’s biggest at-bat came in the bottom of the ninth when he hit a bases loaded single that scored a pair of runs.

“I just kept a clear head and looked for a fastball,” Russell said. “I got a fastball on the outside corner, and I just put a good swing on it.”

On the mound

McCulloch allowed just one run in two and two-thirds innings to open the game. Despite allowing four hits and two walks, McCulloch managed to minimize the damage, only allowing the one run before the Braves started to break through at the plate in the later innings.

“I went deep into a lot of counts,” McCulloch said. “Getting ahead is big, and when I get deep into the counts I tend to leave balls out over the plate. But, it seemed to work my way a little bit, getting out of there.”

Up next

The Huskies will take on the Toledo Rockets (13-23, 6-6 MAC) in a three-game series beginning Friday and concluding Sunday in Toledo, Ohio. Game one is scheduled to start 2 p.m. Friday. Games two and three will begin at noon on Saturday and Sunday.

The Rockets are coming off a 5-0 win over the No. 25 Notre Dame Fighting Irish on Wednesday. They’ve won three of their last four while the Huskies are still trying to get back on their feet after snapping their nine-game losing streak Tuesday. NIU will try to get its first MAC win since March 28; since then the Huskies have lost all seven of their conference games.

Toledo will likely start Cameron Palmer against senior Ben Neumann on Friday and Steven Calhoun going up against senior Dirk Ormsby on Saturday. In Sunday’s finale, the Rockets will likely send out Alec Schmenk. In his last outing against Western Michigan on Sunday, Schmenk threw seven innings, allowing just three runs.