Balanced offense pays off for Gophers

by Mark Heller

Two of the keys for the Minnesota softball team heading into last weekend’s Big Ten tournament was to get the top two hitters in the lineup on base and get some production from the bottom half of the lineup.
Like the offense in general, it wasn’t pretty, but both ends of the lineup did just enough at just the right time to give the Gophers their first-ever conference championship.
Against Penn State, Minnesota got two hits and the game-winning RBI from lead-off hitter Steph Midthun. No. 8 hitter Erin Brophy reached on an error in the bottom of the fifth. No. 9 hitter Meghan Smith successfully sacrificed pinch runner Amy Hafemeyer to second, setting up Midthun’s hit.
Afterwards, Minnesota felt fortunate to win the game, despite striking out 10 times and getting only five hits — none from the six through nine hitters.
“(Penn State pitcher Jackie Kalp) threw a good outside pitch today and the umpire was giving it to her,” Minnesota co-coach Lisa Bernstein said. “We didn’t make the adjustment. At this level, after one at-bat you should be able to make the adjustment. Sometimes hitters get stubborn because they’re convinced they know their zone.”
In game two, Minnesota cut their strikeouts in half, but Michigan’s Jamie Gillies had the Gophers on their heels, giving up just four hits and no runs, and leaving the Gophers seemingly guessing on every pitch.
But in the top of the seventh, the bottom half of the lineup guessed right.
Angel Braden was hit by a pitch and advanced to second on a single by Michelle Bennett. No. 7 hitter Morgan Holden smacked a double into the left-center field gap to score Braden and tie the game at one. One out later, and pinch hitter Dana Ballard’s sacrifice fly gave Minnesota an eventual 2-1 win.
“We were on fire in the last inning,” Holden said. “We never doubted ourselves, and no matter how far we were down, we always were positive and never gave up. In the seventh inning we knew we had one last chance to go at it with all we had, and we did.”
In that game, the top four hitters in Minnesota’s lineup combined to go 2-for-11 with no runs or RBIs. Among those four were Jordanne Nygren, who led the team with 14 home runs and 58 RBIs during the regular season. In the three tournament games, Nygren went 1-for-8 with no RBIs.
But the Gophers were able to survive the weekend’s inconsistencies, even in the championship game. After No. 2 hitter Tammi Hays singled, third hitter Shannon Beeler delivered the big blow against Michigan with a two-run home run in the top of the sixth to tie the game at 2-2.
Bennett, the sixth hitter, got a base hit in the top of the seventh and pinch runner Hafemeyer advanced to second on a passed ball. Ballard came through again, dropping a short fly into left field for the game- and tournament-winning hit.
“As a pinch hitter, putting the ball in play is my job,” Ballard said. “I got a pitch that was up and got jammed, so I had to drop it somewhere, and that’s what I did.”
The lineup didn’t do a lot, just enough at the right time.
All-Big Ten honors
Four Gophers were named to the All-Big Ten team last weekend.
Senior pitcher Steph Klaviter was named to the team for the third consecutive year and given her first first-team honor.
Beeler, a senior shortstop, and Midthun, a senior center fielder, were both named to the second team. Braden, a sophomore first/third baseman, was named to the third team for the first time.