NIU baseball finishes with losing record

By Sean Ostruszka

So much for third time’s the charm.

After two years under NIU baseball coach Ed Mathey, the Huskies had two 30-plus win seasons and two trips to the MAC Tournament. So coming into his third season, Mathey felt there was no reason not to make it three straight.

But, as the season wore on, the win column never caught up to the losses. At the time spring classes ended, NIU was 12-29-1 overall and 2-13 in the MAC – good enough for last place.

“Obviously we are not happy with how our season ended up,” Mathey said. “We didn’t have the results we had the previous two seasons. But our young players got a lot of experience and we never stopped playing hard, which is good.”

While most students packed up their belongings and headed off to summer, the Huskies still had 11 games left to play.

May 6-8 at Eastern Michigan

Mathey can only look back at this series and wonder, “what if?”

Knotted at 5-5 in game one, all NIU had to do was hold on and force extra innings. But EMU’s Derek Lehrman decided extra innings wasn’t necessary as he hit a walk-off home run to take the game 7-5.

Game three wasn’t much better as the Huskies again held the lead late but crucial errors gave EMU the runs they needed to win 7-6.

But in the second game of the series, freshman Brian Smith continued to show how good he can be. The right-hander tossed a nine-hit, complete-game shutout, and NIU took won 5-0.

May 13-15 vs. Miami of Ohio

The only way NIU was going to take a game or two from MAC-leading Miami was with a stellar performance.

After dropping the first two games 5-1 and 5-2, the Huskies needed Smith again to step up in order to salvage a win in the series.

“We had a good ball game in game one,” Mathey said, “and a legit shot at winning game two, so what Brian did for us in game three was huge.”

Smith responded by allowing only four hits and NIU staged a late-inning rally to come from behind to win 3-2.

For his efforts, Smith was named MAC West Division Co-Pitcher of the Week.

May 17-18 at No. 3 Nebraska

NIU just couldn’t catch a break. After dropping two of three to MAC-leading Miami, the Huskies headed to No. 3 ranked and College World Series contender Nebraska.

NIU led late in both games but couldn’t hang on in either. In game one, the Huskies led 3-2 going into the sixth, but errors allowed Nebraska to break the game open and win 10-3.

And despite what Mathey called a “gem” by Nick Hall in game two, NIU couldn’t muster enough runs to split the series, losing 3-2.

May 20-22 at Toledo

Going into the last series of the year, NIU squared off with Toledo in a battle of the bottom dwellers. The winner of the series could say it wasn’t the worst team in the MAC.

And after losing game one 4-2, NIU had to win the next two games or remain in last.

Smith followed up his previous week’s performance by striking out a career-high seven and NIU’s offense put up a season-high 19 runs to take game two 19-11. The offense stayed hot and NIU took game three 7-3 and let Toledo take last place.

Overall, NIU finished 16-36-1 with a 6-18 record in the MAC – second to last in the conference. But despite the disappointing record, Mathey still saw many things that bode well for the future.

Senior Jeremy Busch didn’t let the down season faze him. The only player to play every game, Busch led NIU in almost every offensive category and became the first Huskie to be named First Team All-MAC since 1980.

“That’s a tribute to him and his hard work,” Mathey said. “The big thing really was at the coaches meeting it wasn’t his stats that everybody was talking about. Everyone was talking about the way he played the game.”

Then there was the pitching staff of the future. The Huskies had three freshman starters in its rotation.

Brian Smith led the way with a 6-6 record and a 2.85 ERA with three complete games. Despite not getting any wins, Adam Holdenrid managed a 3.71 ERA and Dave Nykiel filled in toward the end of the season to go 2-0 with a 5.06 ERA.

“I think we have an exceptional young pitching staff,” Mathey said. “Had we played better defense I think we could have had a much better season. So we will retool our defense and next year turn things around.”