Plate discipline produces big results for softball

By Joe Katz

At this time of spring, most teams are just trying to get their foot in the postseason door. After a season that’s been disappointing at times, softball suddenly looks ready to break it down.

In one of their best performances of the season, regionally sixth-ranked Chicago (18–10) butchered regionally third-ranked Aurora (now 30–8) in a 6–2, 10–0 twinight doubleheader sweep. The Wednesday afternoon road triumph gives the Maroons a five-game winning streak and keeps the team in position for an NCAA berth heading into their final weekend of play.

The wins over the highly regarded Spartans, who had stood as high as 16th in the national rankings, will be a boon in Chicago’s quest for playoff glory. As an independent, the Maroons historically have needed to be near-perfect to make the tournament, and they will be biting their nails until selection day, even with the 17 additional spots available this year. The road whitewash will substantially add to their quality of wins.

“We were kind of in a must-win situation. Our backs were against the wall,” head coach Ruth Kmak said. “We’ve had some unfortunate splits over the past couple of weeks, and they put us up against [the wall]. We’ve come through. It was really a lot of fun.”

The breakthrough was a long time coming for the Maroons. After splitting double dates with Lawrence (15–14), UW–Oshkosh (23–13), and Lake Forest (21–12), the squad had turned its focus in practice into patience at the plate and execution with runners on base. While this new discipline had begun to pay off in Saturday’s 2–0, 3–0 crushing of Hope (now 25–11), in this pair it truly began to reap dividends.

“We’ve taken a different approach this last week and a half, and it really came out yesterday,” Kmak said. “We’ve looked at what we needed to do in practice, and we took our practice execution and brought it at the plate. I think our hitting finally became what we thought it would be.”

A normally solid Aurora pitching staff discovered why Chicago had regarded its own offensive prowess so highly entering the season. The Maroons made first-year righty Nicole Capone (15–3) feel their wrath in the top of the third.

Third-year center fielder Nancy Bugajski got things going with a single, which was followed by a sacrifice, another single by first-year second baseman Jen Jacobson, and a fielder’s choice that erased Bugajski but put fourth-year third baseman Kayti Fuhr aboard at first. With men on first and second, second-year left fielder Dominique Marshall doubled to drive in two and immediately found her own way home after an error at the end of the play by third-year second baseman Jen Spoden.

“We were more consistent both games with our offense, our defense, and our pitching,” Kmak said. “We’re finishing much stronger this year, and hopefully that’ll continue through the weekend.”

While the Spartans did manage to respond with a couple of runs in the bottom of the inning, they scraped together just two more hits the rest of the way. Third-year righty Petra Wade (17–4, 1.15) walked one against six strikeouts for the complete game victory.

The Aurora starter was dealt further damage when Wade drove home fourth-year first baseman Rachel Cohen after a leadoff triple in the sixth, and later by a two-run single from fourth-year designated hitter Kate Rhodes in the seventh. Capone went the distance to take the loss, giving up six runs, five earned on 10 hits and one walk. The Maroons had not scored more than four runs at any point in their previous 14 games.

“I didn’t think we’d put them away like that. We’ve kind of been waiting for our bats to open up against this type of pitching, and I thought we could play solidly and take two. But I didn’t think we could do it in such convincing fashion,” Kmak said.

Finishing off a sweep against good pitching has not been a strength of the squad this month. From the very first batter of the second game, practice seemed to have at last made perfect for Chicago. Balls were flying all over the park as the visitors batted around in their first at-bat for five runs on six hits and a walk.

Cohen pushed the first runs across with a two-run double, but everyone got into the act against third-year righty Brittany Butcher (12–4). The starter was finally chased after allowing back-to-back singles to Jacobson and Fuhr without recording an out in the second, taking the loss. She gave up five runs, all earned on eight hits and a walk.

Her successor, second-year Sara Narotsky, didn’t do much better in her four innings of work. She was mugged for three runs, two of them unearned as her defense made her life more difficult in the third, but had no excuses as she gave up two more on four hits in the next frame. The season high 10 runs and 16 hits came against a squad that has held opponents to a .230 batting average and has recorded an impressive 1.71 ERA on the year. The Maroons also accomplished the feat without several team members, most notably third-year shortstop Jessica Mayhew, who missed the second game for academic reasons.

“It was murderous. We talked about keys to the game, executing and scoring and keeping the pressure on their defense. We hit the ball and made the defense make mistakes. It was a great day,” Kmak said.

With such an eruption at the plate, it was easy to overlook another stellar outing at the mound for the Maroons. Wade allowed no hits and just one walk in three innings before giving way to third-year lefty Lauren Hula, who gave up two hits in two scoreless innings. The ace got the win as the game was ended by the mercy rule after just five frames.

“Petra kept them off balance, and Hula really made them look silly,” Kmak said. “Our defense played really strong as well; our outfielders made some really good running catches. It was the balance we were looking for.”

The doubleheader was originally scheduled for Tuesday, but was pushed back due to poor weather and field conditions at Aurora.

Though the wins will be a big help, the Maroons will need to take care of business to help themselves in their final regular season games this weekend. The team will take on 24th-ranked Illinois Wesleyan (28–9) at Bloomington tomorrow before hosting UW–Whitewater (22–13), their home finale Sunday starting at 1 p.m. The squad may well need a sweep against the Great Lakes power Titans and the hot-hitting Warhawks to stay involved in the postseason picture. Wade will get the start in each of the openers, though Hula and fourth-year righty Courtney Uchytil will both likely see some work with the team prepared to pull out all the stops as it attempts to lock up a bid.