Standing at the mound, 43 feet away from the Michigan State batter she’s attempting to strike out, softball pitcher Lauren Delaney is trying to concentrate on her next pitch. With runners on second and third, one more strikeout would end the inning, leaving the runners stranded.
She has rehearsed this situation thousands of times, and she has the skill to follow through. There’s just one problem.
“She has all the tools and right now it’s just about getting that mental piece in so she can really execute well in games,” head coach Kate Drohan said.
She takes a breath, winds up her arm and sends the bright yellow ball speeding towards the Spartan at the plate. Her pitch is accompanied by a hated sound: the clang of an aluminum bat coming in contact with the 12-inch ball.
Luckily, outfielder Kelly Dyer was there to make a sliding catch, ending the inning.
Delaney entered her senior season with plenty of accolades. She is a six-time Big Ten Pitcher of the Week, set the Northwestern Single-season record for wins at 37 her sophomore year, has compiled a total of 965 strikeouts and a 2.05 ERA in her past three seasons.
With a history like that, analysts and fans expected Delaney would continue to rack up awards, building upon the success of last year’s team, which made it to the NCAA Regional Tournament with a record of 31-13.
However, the pressure has left her struggling to control her pitches.
“I think just I’ve been getting in my way mentally,” Delaney said, “like thinking about it too much when I’m on the field.”
Her ERA has soared to 3.85 this season, accompanied with a faulting record. Delaney has ten wins and 12 losses accompanied with only 154 strikeouts. She has racked up more K’s than the other two Northwestern pitchers, freshman Meghan Lamberth and junior Jessica Smith, but this season doesn’t compare to last year’s total of 314. In fact, it comes closer to her freshman statistics when she struck out 190.
The biggest struggle she’s facing is keeping her number of hits down. After that, her next issue is keeping runners on base from scoring. This season, Delaney has allowed 98 hits. Of those 98, 94 scored runs.
Nerves only seem to come into play when Delaney goes onto the field for official games.
“I think what I’ve struggled with is…not necessarily physically what I can do, because my bullpens have been good, practices have been good,” she said.
As the end of the season approaches, Delaney has been meeting with the sports psychologist and working with her pitching coach Tori Nyberg learning new ways to focus on the game and keep her from doubting her abilities.
“I think it went well against Michigan State, just some new things to say to myself and kind of clear my mind while I’m on the field and that seems to be working pretty well right now,” Delaney said.
At the April 21 double-header in East Lansing, Mich., Northwestern defeated Michigan State first 15-0 and then again 9-0 with Delaney at the plate. At the bottom of the fourth inning in the second game, the Spartans had a runner on second with only one out. It was up to Delaney to maintain the two-game shutout and she delivered. The next two at bats saw swinging strikeouts to bring the inning to a close.
Both games only lasted five innings as per the NCAA run-rule (the game is cut short if one team is ahead at least eight runs by the fifth inning).
Coach Drohan strongly believes in the talent of her pitcher. She’s just eager to see Delaney back to her usual mentally-tough self.
“She certainly has the skills…” Drohan said. “She’s strong. She’s worked really hard in her conditioning and she’s worked really hard on hitting good spots and spinning the ball well.”
But the fate of the team isn’t solely resting on the shoulders of their pitcher. Delaney acknowledges that even though this year’s softball lineup is one of the fastest and most athletic she’s worked with, there are some areas that need improvement if they’re going to stay on track for the NCAA regional tournament and raise their Big Ten standings.
“Just battling when we’re down,” she said. “I think that’s probably the biggest thing we need to work on. We have the ability, but sometimes we struggle once we, like, make one mistake.”