U speedsters share lead-off spotlight

by Michael Dougherty

Bullpen by committee is a common term used to describe a team that relies on a variety of different pitchers to provide relief for the starting rotation.
But the Gophers softball team has taken the committee element of that philosophy and applied it to the lead-off spot in its batting order.
All-American Rachel Nelson was a fixture in the top spot of the order during her career at Minnesota. Nelson’s graduation forced coach Lisa Bernstein-O’Brien to turn to senior Laura Peters and junior Steph Midthun for an effective lead-off platoon.
“We’ve been trying this year to go ahead and lead-off the one that is hot at the time,” Bernstein-O’Brien said.
The experiment has led to considerable success. Midthun has batted first in 28 games, and is 15-for-27 with nine runs scored in the first at bat of those games.
Peters, meanwhile, has led-off 30 times, and is 13-for-29, coming around to score eight times. Each hitter has walked once.
Leading off is a prominent position, but surprisingly the two said they don’t care which one takes the honor.
“It doesn’t matter,” Peters said. “We kind of joke about it a little bit. We’re like, Are you hitting “one” today or am I?'”
The coach said that she likes the flexibility of having two good slap-hitters back-to-back.
“We’ve switched them back and forth,” Bernstein-O’Brien said. “They’re both very mature athletes, and I don’t think it matters to either of them.”
Midthun agreed.
“It’s so funny, because Pete and I work well together as a team,” she said. “If she’s leading off, I’m moving her to second. We both have the same approach.”
Both of the players also are excellent base runners. Midthun ranks second in the Big Ten in stolen bases with 29, and Peters is third with 28.
Midthun broke the single-season team record of 25 last week, and the race is on to see who ends up with the record at the end of the year. However, neither player is concerned with personal achievements like that.
“I think about stolen bases, but I don’t think about the fact that I’m competing with her,” Midthun said.
With potent bats hitting behind the baserunning bandits, Minnesota often scores early.
“It’s great because we’ve got people like Morgan Holden, Shannon Beeler and Amber Hegland behind them,” Bernstein-O’Brien said. “Once Steph and Laura get to second base, we know one of those three can score them.”
Beeler and Hegland, in particular, have taken advantage of Midthun and Peters’ ability to get on base. Hegland is hitting .449 and has 39 RBIs, and Beeler is at .422 and has knocked in a team-record 66 runners.
Going into the final weekend of the regular season, the effectiveness of the lead-off duo will be extremely important for the Gophers (42-17, 11-9 in the Big Ten).
They face Michigan State (32-17, 11-10) in a three-game series at the Bierman Softball Complex. The winner of the series will lock up the fourth and final spot in the Big Ten Tournament in Ann Arbor, Mich., on May 8-10.
Michigan, ranked No. 2 in the country, is the top seed with a 44-4 record overall, and a 19-1 conference record.
Northwestern, which the Gophers beat twice earlier this season, is in second place with a 13-8 conference record, and 20th-ranked Iowa is third at 12-8.
While Bernstein-O’Brien claims that her squad always takes one game at a time and doesn’t care how other teams do, don’t be surprised if they spend a little time this weekend checking out the scoreboard.
The Wildcats host a three-game series with Ohio State, and the Hawkeyes welcome Purdue for three.
Michigan State, meanwhile, is the only Big Ten team to beat Michigan this season, having knocked off the Wolverines 7-4 two weeks ago. Minnesota was swept by the Spartans last season in East Lansing, Mich.
After starting out 7-1 in the conference, the Gophers didn’t plan on spending the last weekend playing for their postseason lives. But Midthun said she likes her team’s chances.
“I think we have the advantage playing on our home field,” Midthun said. “They are a good team, but if we play Minnesota softball, I think we’ve got a decent shot at winning all three games.”