U hopes pitching brings Big Ten title

Jeff Sherry

A strong pitcher can dominate a softball game like potent garlic that takes over a pasta dish — they can both be overpowering and leave a bad taste in someone’s mouth.
Just ask the Minnesota softball team, which managed to score just 10 runs in its last nine games against Big Ten ace pitchers. And if that trend isn’t nauseating enough for the Gophers, a look at who they could face at this weekend’s Big Ten softball tournament just might give them heartburn.
The conference’s top three pitchers — one from each of the opposing teams — will compete this weekend in Ann Arbor, Mich. Michigan’s Sara Griffin and Iowa’s Debbie Bilbao share the Big Ten’s best ERA at 1.07. Indiana workhorse Gina Ugo ranks right behind them with a 1.08 ERA. The three pitchers have combined for 78 wins and more than 440 strikeouts.
But the Gophers aren’t reaching for their Tums quite yet.
“Honestly, Bilbao and Griffin are hittable,” said Minnesota coach Lisa Bernstein. “They don’t throw the ball that hard, and they don’t throw a ton of strikeouts, but they are able to hit their spots. We worked a lot on hitting the outside pitch today (in practice) and hopefully that will come through and pay off for us this weekend.
“But those guys are very, very hittable. The kids are ready to go. They’re fired up, and they’re not at all scared or worried about Sara Griffin or Bilbao. They want a chance at both of them.”
Griffin and Bilbao were brutal to Minnesota during the last week of the regular season. Bilbao shut out the Gophers on four hits May 1, and Griffin threw two shutouts against Minnesota last weekend, including a no-hitter.
Minnesota will likely face Bilbao at 11 a.m. today in the tournament opener.
“I think it’s good to get the opportunity to see these guys again,” Bernstein said. “We’re all confident — we’ve beat every team that’s there. I don’t think they’re going to be thinking much about what happened in the regular season. I think we’re going to go out there ready to beat Iowa and not worry about anything else until we get done with that game.”
But Minnesota left fielder Amber Hegland indicated the Gophers do have a bit of revenge on their minds.
“In a strange sense, I think it might be good that we struggled last weekend,” Hegland said. “I think everybody’s going to be out for blood against Sara Griffin. We’re all waiting for a chance to hit the ball hard against her and get some base hits.”
Another factor that might help Minnesota this weekend is its own pitching depth. While the other teams will likely go to a lesser pitcher for their second game, the Gophers believe they have two No. 1 pitchers in Jennifer Johnson and Steph Klaviter.
Bernstein said Johnson will start today against Iowa and the team will incorporate a pitching-by-committee approach throughout the weekend.
Looking ahead, if the second-seeded Gophers and top-seeded Wolverines both win, a fresh Klaviter would put Minnesota in a good situation against Michigan in the second game. Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said she plans to use her usual rotation of Griffin and Kelly Holmes. That means the Gophers would likely face Holmes, whom they scored seven runs off of Saturday in nine innings.
“You would much rather be the No. 1 seed, but it looks like being No. 2 is a good draw for us,” Hegland said. “We probably won’t see Griffin right away, so maybe it’s like coach says — things happen for a reason.”
Notes: Unlike last year when only Michigan and Northwestern were ranked, all four teams in this year’s tournament are ranked in the top 25. Michigan is No. 7, Minnesota is No. 13, Iowa is No. 14 and Indiana is No. 23.
Of the four teams in the double-elimination tournament, the only series sweep in the regular season occurred when the Gophers won both games of a doubleheader at Indiana.