Northeastern entered the weekend series at Auburn’s beautiful Plainsman Park with an 8-3 record that included two impressive accomplishments. The first a neutral-site series win vs. Creighton to open the season, one that featured a convincing 8-3 win in the rubber game.
The other was the Huskies series draw vs SEC foe Missouri. Again they bowed their collective necks when it mattered, winning pivotal game four to secure a split with the Tigers.
Both those wins were behind stellar outings by sophomore left-hander Sean Mellen.
Talking casually with head coach Mike Glavine before Friday's opener, it was clear he’s quite pleased with how the season has started.
However, playing a true road series in an SEC ballpark and against a 13-0 Auburn team gearing up for SEC play is an entirely different proposition.
Ever the realist, Glavine knew this weekend would provide the sternest test yet for his team while offering a true benchmark for the program early in year four of his tenure.
It didn’t start well on Friday night, as the Huskies faced one of the best collegiate pitchers in America. Casey Mize lived up to his reputation, firing a sensational no-hitter, striking out 13 Northeastern batters while facing just one over the minimum in a 6-0 Tigers win.
At the same time, however, the Huskies provided an inkling of what was to come.
After falling behind 3-0 in the first inning, Husky starter Brian Christian buckled down, retiring the side in order in the 2nd inning and facing just 3 hitters in the 3rd.
“I thought Christian did a phenomenal job after the first inning” said Auburn head coach Butch Thompson. “I thought we’d continue to have great at-bats. Then he threw seven straight first-pitch breaking balls, shifted gears, and put up couple of goose eggs”.
Auburn would add two runs in the 4th and another in the 5th to lead 6-0. That would be all the scoring on the night, as Northeastern relievers Brian Rodriguez and Brandon Dufault combined for 3.2 scoreless innings thereafter.
While the Huskies were held hitless, keeping Friday night’s loss at a respectable 6-0 showed they weren't just going to roll over in the final two games.
In fact, the Huskies immediately ended their hitless string to open Saturday's first game (inclement weather forecasted for Sunday necessitated a double-header Saturday), as lead-off hitter Charlie McConnell singled. With one out he swiped second and moved to third on a Scott Holzwasser single. With two outs, Max Burt was hit by a pitch, loading the bases against Auburn starter Davis Daniel.
Ultimately those runners were left on base and the Huskies trailed 14-1 heading to the 9th inning. However they didn't quit, opening the frame with five hits and a walk before Mike Geaslen blasted a massive 3-run homer, closing the once insurmountable lead to 14-8. The Huskies ultimately lost by that score but could hold their heads high at the same time.
Forty-five minutes later the Huskies would be looking to salvage the series with a win, something they needed to prove their early season success was truly legitimate.
The team was comfortable facing this challenge behind starter Sean Mellen, who had proven earlier in the season that he's up to the stopper's role.
A 6-5 sophomore southpaw from Norwood, MA, Mellen struggled mightily with command over 20 freshman innings a year ago, walking 28 hitters. He did strike out 20 batters, though, hinting that good stuff was in that arm somewhere.
We got a good look at Mellen this fall, (see report), and really liked what we saw. He was consistently around the plate during his workout, showing a sneaky fastball and sharp late-breaking curve, commanding both sides of the plate with confidence. Afterwards Glavine commented that Mellen “has all the makings” of an effective weekend starter.
He entered this start with a 3-0 record and 1.42 ERA over 19 innings of work. Most notably, he’d walked only 7 batters while whiffing 28.
He's been commanding his stuff.
Auburn was now 15-0, looking to close out the sweep, preserve their perfect record and launch into SEC play flying high.
Mellen and the Huskies had a different plan.
As he did earlier in the day, McConnell reached base to start the game, this time by way of a walk, and with two outs, swiped another bag. Jake Farrell laced a double to right field, scoring McConnell for a 1-0 Huskies lead they would never relinquish.
From there it was the Sean Mellen show, with help from some late game defensive heroics.
The left-hander breezed through the first four innings, retiring 12 of the 13 Tiger batters he faced while commanding every inch of the zone, including up and in. Several times he backed off Tigers hitters with inside fastballs in the 88-90 range while also effectively changing elevation. He appeared fearless in this hostile environment.
Sean Mellen (courtesy of Northeastern Athletics)
In the Huskies 5th, Farrell led off with his second double of the day, knocking Auburn freshman phenom Tanner Burns from the game. One out later, left-fielder Cam Walsh singled home Farrell for a 2-0 Huskies lead.
In the Tigers 5th, Mellen walked 3B Josh Anthony to start the frame. No problem. The next two hitters were retired with ease before a sweet pick-off move caught Anthony leaning, and he was retired easily at second base on a Farrell to Burt throw & tag.
In the 6th, Mellen was now in full attack mode, whiffing freshman Edouard Julien looking and Will Holland swinging before a first-pitch ground out by Luke Jarvis ended the inning, quietly.
Local reporters in the press box were wowed, one stating to no one in particular "who is this guy? He's the best we've seen all year, by far".
All were thinking "no-hitter" and the prospect that Sean Mellen could match Casey Mize's feat just 24 hours earlier.
In the Tigers 7th, a pumped up Mellen touched 91 with one fastball, retiring Auburn’s 2, 3 & 4-hole hitters on just eight pitches. He received some defensive help from 2B Scott Holzwasser, who snared a line drive off the bat of Conor Davis with a nice over-the-shoulder, backhanded grab for the final out of the inning.
After the Huskies went down quickly in their half of the 8th, Mellen strode to the mound while Tiger fans implored their team with full-throated gusto to end the no-hitter and preserve their unbeaten season.
The lefty promptly froze Anthony with a fastball on the corner for a strikeout before issuing a free pass to Tiger catcher Brett Wright. After retiring Estes on a line out to Lang at third base and with Wright now on second following a stolen base, Mellen faced freshman DH Edouard Julien.
On a 1-2 outer half curve ball, Julien skied an opposite field fly ball deep down the left field line, towards the wall and 315’ marker. Cam Walsh dashed toward the line, and with the sideline wall fast approaching, made a gutty attempt at a sliding catch to preserve the no-hitter and end the inning.
It just wasn’t to be, as the ball fell inches fair, scoring Wright and ending both the no-hitter and shutout on one swing.
Plainsman Park erupted with a jolt of electricity as the Tiger fans sensed a stirring comeback. Julien stood on second base with the tying run.
Then, when they needed it most, the Huskies defense made the play-of-the-year.
On the very next pitch, Will Holland hit a weak grounder to the left side which somehow found the the hole for a base hit. With Julien rounding third and heading for home with the tying run, shortstop Burt, the 2017 Colonial Defensive Player-of-the Year, knocked the ball down just on the outfield grass, came to his feet and uncorked an off-balance multi-hop throw to the plate. There, in bang-bang fashion, catcher John Mazza calmly gathered the ball just in time to tag a head-first diving Julien, preserving the lead and ending the Tiger threat.
That was Mellen’s final pitch of the night. His final line was simply sensational:
8 innings pitched, 2 hits, 1 run (earned), three walks and 8 strikeouts on 106 pitches, 72 for strikes
On came reliever Andrew Misiaszek, who allowed just one base runner before inducing Davis to ground out, ending the triller, silencing the Tiger fans and handing Auburn it’s first loss on the season (15-1).
Much was learned about this Northeastern team (9-5) over these three games.
They are a gritty bunch who will fight tooth & nail. They won't be easily intimidated, even in the most hostile settings.
And, most importantly, they proved capable of closing games against quality opponents behind an opportunistic offense, air-tight defense & top-shelf pitching.
Northeastern now boasts three wins against SEC teams. Their series win versus Creighton looks even better after the Jayhawks won a series this past weekend at Minnesota.
They'll make another brutal trip to Texas Tech for a four-game series March 23-25th, a opportunity to further boost their RPI stock before opening Colonial play March 30th at James Madison.
After last years 16-7 Colonial record & regular season title and, coupled with what we've seen this year, it's clear Glavine's program is on a solid foundation and trending up.
How high the trajectory will be determined over the next 10 weeks of the season.