Softball slips in search of second seed vs. Spartans

by Mark Heller

The Minnesota softball team could have used this weekend’s series against Michigan State to create some much-needed breathing room in the race for the No. 2 seed in the conference tournament.
Could have, but didn’t.
By dropping two of three games against the Spartans, the Gophers (39-17 overall, 12-7 in the Big Ten) and Michigan State (38-18, 12-7) are now tied for the second seed. Three other teams — Penn State, Iowa and Wisconsin — are all within 1 1/2 games of second place.
Michigan clinched the conference championship for the second consecutive year.
“(Steph) Klaviter pitched a great game for us in the first game,” Gophers co-coach Lisa Bernstein said. “The next two games were very competitive, but we just didn’t get the key hit, pitch or make the key defensive play.”
In Sunday’s rubber match, Minnesota got off to a fast start, taking a 3-0 lead through three innings.
Sophomore Angel Braden led-off the top of the second inning with her third home run of the season to left center.
The Gophers scored twice more in the top of the third. With two out, freshman Tammi Hays doubled down the right field line. Senior Shannon Beeler doubled to right center to score Hays, and Braden singled to left to score Beeler for a 3-0 lead.
But the Gophers collapsed in the bottom of the fourth. After giving up back-to-back singles, the senior Klaviter got two outs before walking Tiffany Yager to load the bases. Klaviter hit Carrie Carpenter to force in a run.
Heather Brown relieved Klaviter, and immediately gave up a two-run single to Carrie Fry, and an error by Morgan Holden allowed another run to score, giving the Spartans a 4-3 lead they would never relinquish.
In relief of Erica Strutz, who couldn’t get out of the third inning, the Spartans’ Becky Gray shut down Minnesota the rest of the way. She gave up three hits and no runs in four-plus innings in the win. Gray is now 12-5 this season.
Klaviter took the loss, going just three-plus innings, giving up four hits, four walks and four runs. She dropped to 18-8 on the season.
On Saturday, Klaviter threw a complete game one-hitter for her 21st career shutout. She faced just one batter over the minimum, while striking out three.
Beeler hit her 12th home run of the season in the first inning for a quick 1-0 lead.
The Gophers added a run in the top of the sixth on an RBI single by Beeler, and another in the seventh on an RBI single by Meghan Smith.
In the second game, Minnesota once again got the early lead in the bottom of the first inning, loading the bases and getting a run when senior Steph Midthun scored from third base on a wild pitch.
Michigan State scored two unearned runs in the top of the third off Klaviter. But the Gophers tied the game in the bottom of the inning on a one-out RBI single by Beeler. Minnesota could have scored more, but Nygren struck out and Holden fouled out to first.
“At times we hit the ball well,” Bernstein said. “But not well enough to win.”
The Spartans finally took the lead for good in the top of the sixth on an infield hit, a sacrifice bunt, a wild pitch and a sacrifice fly off Michelle Harrison.
Gray went the distance for Michigan State, giving up just two runs. Harrison pitched the last two-plus innings of relief. Despite giving up just one hit and one run, she took the loss and fell to 7-7 on the season.
Minnesota will host Iowa in what has now become another crucial midweek doubleheader at the Bierman Softball Stadium. Ohio State will come to town this weekend for the last series of the season.
“We still control our own destiny as far as second place in the Big Ten and as far as the NCAA tournament is concerned,” Bernstein said. “We need to play our best ball of the season against Iowa and Ohio State.”