Among the preseason goals for the University of Toledo baseball team is a simple yet important one: Play better at the end of the season than the beginning.
The Rockets scratched a check mark next to that objective a year ago, rallying from an uneven start to conference play to win the first division title in program history. Repeating as Mid-American Conference West champions is a long shot, though that’s not because of anything the team has done wrong of late.
Behind the third-straight complete game by Sunday starter Ryan Wilkinson, and hits by all nine batters, the Rockets closed the home portion of their schedule with gusto, smashing division leader Northern Illinois, 9-2. This marks the third-straight series triumph and strengthens Toledo’s once-flimsy chances of qualifying for the eight-team league tournament.
“We’ve done this ever since I’ve been here,” said Wilkinson, who has logged 51 of a possible 54 innings in his last six starts. “We play our best baseball about right now.”
Toledo (19-26, 10-11) is sixth in the overall MAC standings and will secure an automatic postseason bid if it can hold on to third place in the West.
Looming the next two weekends are road series against Ball State, which leads Toledo by one game, and Eastern Michigan, which trails Toledo by one game. NIU (20-26, 14-7) controls the West by three games.
Things were looking ominous midway through April when Toledo fell to 4-8 in the conference after being swept at home by Bowling Green.
“We’re hitting the fastball, and right now we’re getting really good pitching and playing good defense,” said No. 4 hitter Tyler Baar, who had three hits and doubled to start a five-run second inning. “When you have all three of those in a single game, it makes a big impact.”
Mix in a lucky break and that formula becomes more potent. With no outs in the bottom of the second, James Miglin advanced to first by kicking the ball down the first-base line. NIU’s catcher couldn’t hold on to a third strike, and Miglin’s foot made contact with the ball, bumping down the line and in fair territory. NIU’s defense gave up on the play, believing Miglin was out. The umpire crew convened and awarded Miglin first base.
“The only thing I can say is, it was incidental contact,” coach Cory Mee said. “I think we got a break and the important thing is we took advantage of it.”
Five consecutive hits off NIU starter Alex Klonowski (4-6) delivered a run apiece for a 5-0 lead. The Rockets tacked on two more in the fourth and one each in the sixth and seventh.
“Everyone else made it pretty easy,” said Wilkinson, who was not charged for one of NIU’s runs.
“Scoring five runs in the second inning, that makes it pretty easy as a pitcher to just go out there. All you have to do is throw strikes.”