Softball puts

by Mark Heller

The Minnesota softball team has forced itself into another stretch drive.
After blowing a golden opportunity to put some distance between themselves and the rest of the Big Ten last weekend at Michigan State, the Gophers (39-17 overall, 12-7 in the Big Ten) have five games left in the regular season to avoid falling into the fourth or fifth spot in the conference tournament.
Luckily, Minnesota will be at home for its last five games, where the team is 5-1 against the Big Ten at Bierman Softball Stadium.
The stretch begins with a doubleheader against Iowa (37-22, 11-8) today. A sweep would put Minnesota a game up on idle Michigan State, and all but eliminate the Hawkeyes from contention for the second seed.
“We had a really good series (against Michigan State),” junior pitcher Michelle Harrison said. “Things just didn’t bounce our way, but we’re right where we need to be.”
That sentiment is shared by most of the team, but the Gophers want to take control of the No. 2 seed. For that to happen, they’ll need to rely on more than lucky bounces.
Minnesota had solid pitching throughout the series, holding the high-octane Spartans to seven runs in the three games. The Gophers’ staff hasn’t given up more than four runs in a game since April 11 at Michigan.
“We’ve developed and complemented each other well,” Harrison said. “It was new to Heather (Brown) and I in the beginning, but the support for each other is phenomenal and getting better. That’s the key.”
The Gophers hit the ball well, but couldn’t get the big hit when they needed it, something that was a recurring problem earlier in the season.
But rather than searching for answers to the clutch-hitting problem of last weekend, the attitude among some of the players is less worry, and more confidence that last weekend was a one-time lull.
“We looked good and I think we’re clicking from one to nine,” Angel Braden said. “It just didn’t go our way, but if we play like that against Iowa, we’ll win.”
“We’re hitting the ball well right now,” co-coach Lisa Bernstein said. “We’re not swinging and missing as much, and we’re not striking out as much as we did in the middle part of the season. We’re putting the ball in play and that’s all I can ask them to do right now.”
Despite falling short in clutch hitting at crucial times last weekend, the Gophers still know they can hit when it really counts. Odds are Minnesota will need a big hit or two if it’s going to make one final move on the rest of the Big Ten.
“As long as our bats are going, we’re right there,” Braden said. “When we’re all on, it’s crazy.”