Gophers bust slump, Spartans

Minnesota had nine runs in seven Big Ten games before scoring 17 on Sunday alone.

Chris Lempesis

Minnesota’s softball team’s long-dormant offense finally awoke Sunday, and Michigan State proved to be its first postslumber victim.

The Gophers, who totaled just nine runs in their last seven Big Ten contests, exploded for a combined 17 runs in sweeping the Spartans 8-0 and 9-2 at Jane Sage Cowles Stadium.

“(We had) good at-bats, kept the ball out of the air,” Minnesota co-head coach Julie Standering said. “We hit line-drive ground balls and made the defense do things. We hit a lot of holes, and the balls were falling our way.”

Co-coach Lisa Bernstein pointed to the Gophers’ (22-20, 3-7 Big Ten) patience throughout their recent offensive slump as a big reason for Sunday’s breakthrough.

“We haven’t been too crazy – nutso, you know – too up, too down,” Bernstein said. “(We’re) kind of just staying in the middle, and good things happen when that happens.”

The plate performance of sophomore catcher Megan Higginbotham on Sunday might be the best example of Minnesota’s level-headedness.

After batting .190 (4-for-21) with one RBI, one run and no home runs or stolen bases in her first eight conference contests, Higginbotham went off Sunday.

She was 8-for-9 with five RBIs, four runs and two stolen bases in the two games. She also ended her home-run drought by hitting a three-run homer to a centerfield in game two.

Higginbotham said she took a simplistic approach in attempting to break out of her slump – one that has paid off in spades.

“I started out basics again and started off the tee, and I’ve been hitting good,” she said. “So, (I) kind of redid my swing, I guess, if you will.”

In her last four games, including nonconference contests, Higginbotham is batting .800 (12-for-15) with two home runs, eight RBIs and five runs.

“She’s seeing the ball real well right now,” Bernstein said. “She’s staying athletic. She’s staying balanced. She’s real clear at the plate.”

Higginbotham was also a key cog in the Gophers’ biggest single inning Sunday.

She opened and closed Minnesota’s seven-run sixth inning with doubles, and the finisher ended the game before Michigan State (16-25-1, 6-6) could get the final out of the inning because of the mercy rule.

Higginbotham did not do it all by herself, though, as several other Gophers turned in standout performances at the plate.

All but one of the team’s remaining eight starters finished with at least one hit. Junior left fielder Lindsey Erickson and senior designated player Stephanie Sward led that group with four hits apiece.

Even the starter who didn’t get a hit, sophomore first baseman Rene Konderik, still finished the day with two RBIs.

In all, the Minnesota starting nine tore through three Spartans pitchers in the two games.

“They threw every pitcher at us they could, and our hitters did a good job adjusting,” Standering said.

The Gophers now look to the second half of the Big Ten season, the majority of which will be spent on the road.

But, no matter where they play, carrying the type of offense they displayed Sunday down the stretch will be important in opening eyes around the conference.