Three amigos: NU pitching at full strength

Nicholas Collins

Before Game 2 of Wednesday’s doubleheader at DePaul, the Northwestern pitching staff had thrown 209.2 innings this year. 208.1 of those – or 99.4 percent – had been worked by just two Wildcats hurlers.

The only break in the action for the junior duo of Lauren Schwendimann and Brie Brown came on March 23 when senior Gretchen Barnes recorded 1 1/3 innings in relief.

Two-pitcher rotations are not altogether uncommon in college softball, and the NU tandem has filled its difficult role well. But some effects of fatigue have crept into view.

“Brie and Schwendi have done a great job,” NU coach Kate Drohan said. “They’ve played when they’re sore and tired.

“I think it may have worn on them a bit mentally, but part of it is our offense hasn’t taken the pressure off of them.”

The Cats are 1-4 in their last five games, and ace Lauren Schwendimann has lost two straight after having her scoreless-inning streak snapped at 22.

“It’s been tough for them,” Drohan said. “You can’t have your No. 2 starter coming in and getting a save in the first game of a doubleheader, then you don’t have anybody to mix it up with (in Game 2).”

With a schedule that regularly features two doubleheaders a week, NU has run into this problem on more than one occasion.

Enter Stephanie Elliott. Back from injured reserve, the freshman made her first appearance of the season Wednesday against DePaul, throwing two scoreless innings in the nightcap.

“It was just nice to be back out in the circle with all the girls behind me,” Elliott said. “(Being injured was) kind of hard, but I’ve learned a lot about the game, about the team and about myself. It’s been a growing experience.”

Drohan’s confidence in her staff has soared with Elliott’s return.

“The difference between a two- and three-pitcher rotation is huge, especially when you have someone like Steph,” Drohan said.

The Cats’ third arm will be used primarily in relief, as she is still on a limited pitch count, Drohan said. Elliott added that she expects to throw about eight innings.

The new pitching arsenal will be thoroughly tested this weekend when NU (18-13-1, 6-4 Big Ten) hosts No. 12 Michigan and Michigan State at Sharon J. Drysdale Field.

If everything falls the Cats’ way, they could catch the Big Ten-leading Wolverines (34-8, 8-2) in the conference race.

“Softball-wise, we’re ready for that caliber of competition,” Drohan said. “We hit faster pitching (like Michigan) very well. It’s just a matter of us being ready at game time.”

With four conference games on the weekend slate, Elliott’s arrival could not have come at a better time.

“I think you need three pitchers for four games in three days,” Drohan said. “Just the fact of seeing a new pitcher takes some time for our opponents to adjust. It adds a lot to our game plan.”

The broadened strategy will first be tested by Michigan, which arrives today for a two-game series.

“Michigan is the hunted and we’re the hunters,” Drohan said. “We have nothing to lose, we’re just going to go out tomorrow and play hard.”

Michigan State (21-26, 3-7) will roll in Sunday for a doubleheader. This is where the presence of an extra pitcher will be most beneficial for the Cats, Drohan said.

“I think (Brown and Schwendimann) have a lot of confidence in Steph,” Drohan said. “Now they know they can go hard in all four games over a weekend.”

While Michigan has the Cats’ full attention, being the first and more dangerous opponent, Drohan pointed to the Sunday doubleheader as an opportunity for her offense to thrive.

“(Michigan State) is a very well-coached team and they play with a lot of enthusiasm,” Drohan said, “but I’m pretty excited to hit their pitching.”

While that opportunity has Drohan enthused, her new pitching rotation is what really has the first-year coach raving.

“It’s great, it’s perfect,” Drohan said. “They’re so different both on the field and off, and that makes for a great staff.”