If Northwestern softball had the option to play Michigan State every game they would probably take that offer.
After sweeping the Spartans at home last weekend, the fifth-seeded ‘Cats, thanks to six runs in the fifth inning, defeated their conference foe 10-4 Thursday in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament, on the first ever night game at Sharon J. Drysdale Field.
“I think our offense did it for us today,” head coach Kate Drohan said. “Our pitchers struggled a little bit, but what they were successful with was competing”
The 'Cats starting pitcher Kristen Wood had an interesting night in the circle. In her first four innings she was brilliant: Her changeup was the best it’s been all season and she allowed only two runners to reach scoring position.
In the fifth, though, things broke down for her. After a walk, a hit and another walk, the bases were loaded with just one out. Wood has suffered from giving up the “big inning” many times this season and Thursday was no different.
Sarah Bowling took the first pitch fastball and cranked one over the left field fence for a grand slam. After the ‘Cats had taken a 3-0 lead early in the game thanks to an Andrea Filler three run blast, they found themselves behind 4-3. Wood walked the next hitter, and just like that her night was over.
Wood’s final line was four and third, four hits, four runs, four walks and four strikeouts. While it wasn’t her best outing, it wasn’t anything the offense couldn’t overcome.
Nicole Bond came in as her replacement, and after struggling with some control issues she got out of the inning unscathed. To say the mood changed at Drysdale Field would be an understatement. ‘Cats fans expected to see their team role to victory against their lowly opponent, but with anything Northwestern sports related, nothing is that easy.
They wound up getting their wish, though, because instead of panicking in the dugout afterwards, the ‘Cats maintained their cool as they prepared to bat in the bottom of the fifth.
“We just wanted to stay relaxed, first of all,” Filler said. ”The message was just ‘let’s go’ and ‘let’s get on our game, play our game.’”
Emily Allard led off with a walk, then stole second and third for her league-high 30th and 31st swipes of the year. Majam then walked, which brought up Bast with runners on first and third.
Bast hit a grounder to second which scored Allard from third, tying the score up at 4. It just shows you the impact that a speedster can have for a team.
Then after a walk, an error and a strikeout, the bases were loaded for the ‘Cats as Filler came up to the plate, with another chance to do some damage.
She delivered her fourth RBI of the game, via walk, which brought in Majam from third to give the ‘Cats their second lead of the game.
Up next was Paige Tonz, who really broke things open with the second grand slam of the night. It was just her third homer of the year and it gave the ‘Cats a comfortable 9-4 lead. Tonz described her at bat to the media afterwards.
“I was trying to calm my breathing,” she said. “I was taking a long time before each pitch, just thinking to get a base hit, not to do anything special.”
The ‘Cats added one in the top of the sixth, and Bond finished off her stellar outing in the top of the seventh to end the ballgame.
The ‘Cats look to continue their run in the Big Ten Tournament tomorrow when they face Wisconsin at 7 p.m.
“At this time of year, it’s all about playing one pitch at a time,” Drohan said, “and we just have to outwork them; it’s as simple as that.”
Studs & Duds:
Nicole Bond: While it wasn’t always pretty, and she allowed her fair share of walks, Bond stopped the bleeding in the fifth and pitched two and a third scoreless innings for the ‘Cats. If she continues to be this useful out of the bullpen, she could be mightily helpful for the ‘Cats moving forward.
Andrea Filler and Paige Tonz: These ‘Cats drove in nine out of the 10 runs for Northwestern. Without their contributions, mostly via the home run ball, the ‘Cats would have had an early exit.
Walks for ‘Cats pitchers: Wood and Bond gave up nine walks between them, which is an absurd amount in a seven inning game. If they want to advance past the second round, they will have to do a better job of finding the strike zone.
Runners left on base: While the ‘Cats still exploded for 10 runs against the Spartans, it could have been a lot more, because they left seven on base. While this didn’t matter a lot Thursday night, it could be a big factor down the road as they start to face tougher competition.