Coach John Cohen knew the first loss of his MSU tenure was coming, and could keep the setback in a bigger perspective. "We needed to find out some things," he said at the end of a double-header day that began with a 7-1 win over North Florida. "We're still in the evaluation stage. We played a lot of different people, a lot of different positions. And we wanted to put pitchers in a lot of different positions.
"It didn't work out for us but I told our kids the way they competed was very, very good. We just made a couple of physical mistakes, and we didn't make good decisions."
UNI's best decision was running Reynolds over from first corner to the mound in the eighth inning, with two Bulldog runs home and the Husky lead down to 9-7. He did give up a single to 3B Russ Sneed that got the Bulldogs within one, but even that play was a net positive as pinch-runner Brent Brownlee was thrown out a step short of third base. Reynolds fanned C Scott DeLoach to end the inning with Sneed stuck at first. In the ninth after a leadoff walk of pinch-hitter Jason Nappi, the pitcher won a battle with Mark Goforth as on a 2-2 count the pinch-hitter tried again to bunt and fouled it off for the automatic out.
Reynolds then got the top two in State's order on strikeouts to earn the save. Kyle Glancy, the fourth NIU hurler of the evening, only worked two batters and one out, but still picked up the winning decision. Starter Andy Deain lasted 4.1 innings with five MSU runs on six hits against him.
State put Devin Jones on the hill for a college debut and the freshman did just about what was asked of him, putting in four full innings with a run, two hits, two walks and three strikeouts. "Devin was good," said Cohen. "I think when he got to about the 50-pitch mark he lost some delivery, that happens to a lot of freshman. He couldn't re-create that same delivery so we wanted to get him out."
The losing decision went to State's third pitcher, fellow frosh Caleb Reed who had the unlucky timing of working the seventh frame. He put in 1.2 innings with six runs, all officially earned, on six hits with a strikeout and two walks.
This didn't begin as a shootout, with State notching the only score through three innings on Powers' first sacrifice fly. It was a one-out drive that plated SS Jet Butler. Though the Dogs failed to take full advantage of consecutive Husky errors with runners on bases after going up 1-0. Deain was able to put in two less stressful innings after that.
For his part Jones had plenty snap to begin and faced the minimum through three turns. He did allow a hit in that third inning but rolled a double-play to erase it. But the rookie committed the cardinal crime of walking the leadoff Husky in the fourth, and the top of the order to boot. A ground ball served as well as a sacrifice so leftfielder Jordin Hood could single in the tying RBI. Jones had to strand him and another runner, via walk, with a strikeout and line-out to keep the score even.
And the offense got the lead back immediately as Sneed singled and DeLoach was plunked, hard. CF Nick Hardy delivered a RBI base hit, and after 2B Frankie Radow was nicked by a close pitch Butler punched a safet through the right side for two more runs and a 4-1 lead. Figuring Jones had done a day's work with four frames, righty Lee Swindle was given the ball and quickly was facing the tying runner. This because a leadoff double by third baseman Troy White, steal of third, and walk had Huskies on corners. Swindle struck out the nine-batter, and while shortstop Marvin Sanchez did plate the lead runner with his chopper State's Sneed made a sparkling grab and get for the out. This meant another grounder, to Radow, ended the inning with the Dogs still in front by two runs. Then three again as Sneed tripled his way on and scored on a solid DeLoach single that also finished Deain. Righty Zach Oates was able to leave a pair on bases, runners State would regret stranding.
Because the 5-2 lead vanished as NIU scored three times in the top of the fifth without any outings. It began with plain bad luck for Swindle as a hot shot by Hood caromed off his hip and over shortstop. Butler almost made the catch anyway but the great effort was offset by a careless throw-back for a free base. Swindle stayed on the hill and paid for it with a Reynolds single and consecutive shots down opposite baselines. Rightfielder Justin Behm drove in two teammates with his double over third base, then catcher Matt Behren tied it up on a wicked hopper through first base
Reed had hurriedly heated and was brought in to maintain the tie. Butler snared a one-hopper, stepped on the middle bag and threw to first for the double-play. Powers couldn't quite come up with a line-shot but batted it down for a single, and Reed blew strike-three by a watching Pat Minogue to get into the dugout with a 5-5 deadlock.
Tom Zelasko took over pitching for State's sixth with two quick outs and a full count on Powers. The sixth offering was close but Powers ran for first and the umpire didn't stop him. Duffy swung at the first chance and lifted it, high and just long enough to come down on the other side of the rightfield fence; a two-run shot and a 7-5 Dog lead.
This didn't hold up either. Worse, the Huskies were able to go in front this time. Starting the order over, NIU got a single, walk, and single off Reed to fill all posts. Reed rolled one out with a bouncer to first and force at home. And he might have gotten out of the inning had a grounder from Behm been turned into a double-dip. Butler took the relay for the middle-force but overthrew Powers for two Husky runs. Officially it was a fielders choice of course, but...
"It was a tailor-made double-play ball that we almost therw into the fifth row," Cohen said. "Jet didn't have a grip on the baseball and didn't complete the double play. If we complete it there we win going away, that's how crucial each play is. If he doesn't even throw it we still win the game. It's just one of those things."
It was also the opening Northern Illinois needed to catch offensive fire. Sneed could only deflect a hopper by Behren that glanced again off shortstop for a chink single. Suddenly everything the Huskies hit was finding holes as White, Joe Etcheverry, and Minogue all drove in runs. It was 11-7 as righthander Justin Bussey took the ball from Reed with the order starting over. He was able to end the assault with a grounder. The eighth wasn't easy for Bussey with a leadoff double and hit batsman, but a 4-6-3 double play nipped any additional offense.
State still nearly made it all up in their eights as Collins dropped a double in rightfield, and both Butler and Adkins were issued walks. Kyle Glancy came on to stop a rally but gave up a sacrifice fly to Powers—which had to be caught on a slide by the centerfielder--then a clean single by Duffy for a 11-9 scoreboard. Reynolds was rushed over from first base, only to be greeted by Sneed with a sharp single that scored Adkins. However, it was too sharp also as rightfielder Behm got in on the short hop and threw for third. Brownlee, running for Duffy, was tagged out on the slide.
That wasn't a decision Cohen second-guessed. Goforth's was another matter. "Mark doesn't have the bunt sign and he bunts. He says he just wanted to get it done for the club, well, we aren't interested in your opinion, we're interested in doing what the coaches tell you to do.
"Again, these things happen early, it allows you to fix them in the beginning so you can get better. My only issue is do we get better tomorrow. If we're not it means we went backwards."
Even with a split of decisions, the day had to be seen as progress for State's rebuilding process. In the win, rookie pitcher Nick Routt controlled play for eight good innings and showed the competitiveness Cohen wants from the entire roster. "He's going to be a very good pitcher here. His stamina isn't what we want it to be but when he gains some strength, especially in his lower half, I think he can be a really good SEC-caliber pitcher."
State will put a veteran, Tyler Whitney, on the hill for Sunday's 2:30 game with North Florida. As for the lineup, well, Cohen will settle that sometime after noon. As he said tonight, "We're still evaluating personnel. We played two second basemen today, we played two shortstops, we played two third basemen. And this is going to help us make decisions for the future."
One catcher who has yet to play is soph Cody Freeman, hobbled in fall by elbow rehab. He might have played in these first three games, except Freeman managed to hurt his ankle Friday. "In class," Cohen reported. "So we don't know exactly when he's going to be ready to go but no question he's a guy who can really hit and we need to evaluate him behind the plate also."
OF Grant Hogue likely will not play for a few more weeks after injuring the left shoulder early this week in a practice slide.