Daily file photo by Joshua Hoffman
If you only saw No. 8 Northwestern’s first two games against Minnesota, you might struggle to understand how the Wildcats were named Big Ten champions over the weekend. Sunday’s performance against the Golden Gophers, however, was much more representative of NU’s season.
The Cats (39-9, 19-4 Big Ten) were only able to take one of three games against Minnesota (26-23-1, 11-12), but that was enough to clinch the program’s first regular season conference championship since 2008.
“It’s been a long time coming for the program,” graduate right fielder Rachel Lewis said. “It’s really cool to bring it back into the hands of Northwestern.”
The Golden Gophers scored in four consecutive innings during Friday’s opener, taking advantage of multiple defensive errors and senior pitcher Danielle Williams’s uncharacteristically poor performance from the circle. Every Minnesota batter reached base at least once, and NU only managed three hits in the 8-0 loss before the mercy rule took effect in the fifth inning.
Williams earned her third loss of the season, and her first in over a month.
“She got better the more she pitched over the weekend,” coach Kate Drohan said. “There were a few things that we were working on.”
Saturday’s contest was just as lopsided. Designated player Lauren Espalin homered in the Golden Gophers’ first at-bat, setting the tone for the entire game. That home run was Minnesota’s only extra-base hit of the day, but a collection of singles and walks were enough to run up the score again.
The top of the Cats’ lineup went cold, as none of the first five batters managed a single hit, and NU eventually suffered its second 8-0 run-rule loss in a row.
“A lot of it was the pressure that they put on us defensively,” freshman second baseman Grace Nieto said. “We were on their game plan.”
The Cats were up to the task in the series’ final game. Apart from one solo home run, Williams was nearly untouchable, allowing just four hits while pitching all seven innings.
Lewis reached another milestone too, recording her 100th career stolen base. She now has 22 stolen bases this season, tied for second in the Big Ten.
All of NU’s offensive production came in the first inning. Senior catcher Jordyn Rudd opened the scoring with a sacrifice fly, and senior shortstop Maeve Nelson hit the scoreboard in the next at-bat for a two-run home run.
Nelson and Nieto each had multiple extra-base hits, but the Cats benefitted just as much from quality defensive contributions across the entire team.
“From the minute we got to the field, our team shook off some of the challenges we had the first two days,” Drohan said. “They were able to play in a really aggressive style.”
Drohan’s squad turns its focus to the Big Ten Tournament, which will be held in Lansing, Michigan, this year. As the top overall seed, NU has a first-round bye and will face either Wisconsin or Minnesota.
Despite the series loss, Nieto said she isn’t concerned about a potential rematch.
“If we do rematch them, good — we’re going to see those pitchers and we’re going to hit them so hard,” Nieto said. “I’m really excited for it.”
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