Barnes is noble leader for Cats

Jordan Burgess

Northwestern softball player Gretchen Barnes saw riseballs and drop curves flying at her head all the time last year.

But she was a catcher then, and that comes with the territory.

Barnes still sees softballs rocketed in her direction this season. But the mask and pads are gone, and Barnes is left with just a glove to defend herself at her new position – third base.

“It’s a completely different view,” Barnes said. “I’ve seen my life flash before my eyes. You just have to throw your glove out and get lucky.”

Barnes has to stare down liners every game at third base, but that’s the price she pays for being the Wildcats’ utility player. If NU (17-19) needs a position filled, coach Sharon Drysdale turns to Barnes. In fact, Barnes has thrown five innings this season for the pitching-starved Cats – they have only two full-time pitchers, sophomores Brie Brown and Lauren Schwendimann.

And although she doesn’t brag about it, Barnes’ 0.00 ERA is the best on the team by far.

“I have fun with it,” Barnes said. “I have nothing to hold back because I’m not really a pitcher. I just go in there and hope to get them out.”

With Barnes playing in a new position every season, she could easily be expected to look awkward and out of place. But not Barnes, who makes it all look easy. She is comfortable whether she’s up at the plate, behind the plate or watching the plate.

“We actually comment about this in the dugout,” senior Stacey Austin said. “All her movements are very smooth. If you watch a ball get hit to her, she does it in one motion. Usually it’s six or seven transactions. I can’t even put words to what (her swing) is. You’re envious of how easy she makes it look.”

Behind her effortless stroke, Barnes has improved her batting average from .233 last season to .267 this year. She has also driven in a team-high 19 RBIs.

But Barnes has been just as important to the Cats off the field as she has been on the field. She is a co-captain who provides guidance to a young team.

“When you’re down it gets very difficult,” said Austin, Barnes’ fellow captain. “It’s very easy to just stay down with the rest of the team. She tries to bring the team out of it.”

With the Cats having lost two straight, Barnes will need to get her team pumped up for its meeting with Illinois-Chicago. The game was scheduled for April 11 but rain forced it to be moved to this evening at 8 p.m.

Despite the later-than-usual start, Barnes said she is looking forward to facing the Flames in primetime and in the heart of Chicago – where Flames Field is located.

“It will be fun for the whole team,” Barnes said. “All of Chicago is right in the outfield. Maybe we’ll even hit one up near the Sears Tower, knock a window out.”

If Barnes hits like she did last year against Illinois-Chicago, she may have a chance to introduce herself to the famous skyscraper. Barnes launched two home runs and had a career-high five RBIs in last season’s matchup with the Flames.

But even if she strikes out three times in Tuesday night’s game, at least she’ll look good doing it.

“She’s a stud,” Austin said.