CHICAGO – Freshman starting pitcher Jordan Ruckman and his 13 rookie teammates on the Northern Illinois team have known nothing but life on the road in college baseball.
The Huskies played in Texas, Nevada, Minnesota, Kentucky and Tennessee throughout the nonconference portion of the season. By comparison, traveling to the University of Illinois-Chicago for Friday's Mid-American Conference opener – a 3-2 loss to Kent State – wasn't so bad, even if the game was supposed to be at home.
“Our guys have been used to being on the road,” coach Ed Mathey said with a smile. “Our young kids, as many as we have, they don't know any better, they don't know what a home game is yet, so they may as well keep having them on the road.”
Ruckman struck out 10 batters and only allowed one earned run in 7 1/3 innings in a game that would have been his home debut had Ralph McKinzie Field not been deemed unplayable because of recent inclement weather.
“This was the best I've felt all season pitching-wise, hitting my spots and getting my off-speed pitches over,” Ruckman said. “As the game went on, I felt like I kept getting stronger.”
After Ruckman allowed one run in the first, the Flashes scored on an error in the second inning to take the lead for good.
The Huskies (4-15, 0-1 MAC) managed only four hits on the evening, with three coming from junior Jeff Zimmerman. Alex Klonowski scored on a passed ball in the second after reaching base on an error, and Zimmerman drove in Jamison Wells in the eighth after the senior was hit by a pitch.
But after Kent State (7-11, 1-0 MAC) added to its lead in the eighth, the Huskies never could equal the Golden Flashes, who lost only a few key players from a team that played in the College World Series last year.
“It was kind of what we expected coming in against Kent State,” Mathey said. “It was a cold day and it's MAC baseball. It was a good game, and it was a game that we had a chance today.”
Mathey didn't sound frustrated with his young team after the game. But he knows his veterans need to take their games to another level if the young Huskies are going to succeed this season.
“It's not the young kids I'm worried about,” Mathey said. “The veterans have to step up and be who they are. We're happy with the progress of our young guys. They're going to make some mistakes, we kind of anticipated that, but the older guys need to do a better job and step up to shepherd them through.”