By Ari Levin
Coming off a disappointing conclusion to the regular season against Minnesota and the end of a 20-game win streak, the Northwestern Wildcats softball team begins postseason play. Still nationally ranked, Northwestern heads to the Big Ten Tournament looking to improve their national standing. There’s a strong chance that Northwestern needs to win the tournament, or at least make the final, to host an NCAA regional as a top-16 seed.
This is what Northwestern’s likely path to a Big Ten Championship looks like:
Quarterfinal: #7 Indiana
Northwestern faced Indiana back in March in a non-conference game. Danielle Williams pitched a two-hit shutout with 10 strikeouts and no walks. Or, as she calls it, “Saturday.” Northwestern won 5-0. There’s a very strong chance Williams stays in this game for as long as it’s close.
In Big Ten games, Indiana ranked fifth in pitching and sixth in hitting. Indiana’s best player is their pitcher, Tara Trainer, who ranks as one of the best in the Big Ten and was drafted into National Pro Fastpitch in the fifth round. Trainer was fourth in the conference with a 1.79 ERA. Trainer can be quite prone to walks, however, giving up 97 over the season, and the Wildcats can take advantage – Rachel Lewis and Morgan Nelson rank first and second in the conference in free passes. Northwestern scored three runs against her, all on solo home runs by Lewis and both Nelsons. On Thursday, Trainer started and pitched four innings, giving up two runs on a first-inning home run. She also walked five and threw 80 pitches.
Maddie Westmoreland was named First-Team All-Big Ten. In conference play, Westmoreland had a .781 slugging percentage and a .524 wOBA. Grayson Radcliffe is also a good hitter.
Indiana’s a tough team, as evidenced by their early season win at LSU. But Northwestern has beaten them before, and seemingly has the advantage in this one.
Semifinal: #3 Minnesota
Assuming Northwestern beats Indiana, they’ll face Minnesota in a rematch. Northwestern is well-acquainted with Minnesota and especially with Big Ten Pitcher of the Year Amber Fiser. Northwestern stole a game on the road last weekend, but Fiser was dominant throughout, pitching 16.2 innings and allowing just one run while striking out 25 batters.
In just Big Ten games, Fiser led the conference in innings pitched and with 156 strikeouts. She didn’t allow a home run to a big ten opponent all year! Her FIP finished at 0.21, a full run better than anyone else. Sydney Smith is a really good second pitcher. Fiser walks slightly more batters than Williams, giving Northwestern hope of finding some success, but Williams will need to be perfect again.
That is a big ask because, in addition to the best defense, Minnesota has the No. 2 scoring offense, even without Kendyl Lindaman. MaKenna Partain hit .417 and had more doubles than strikeouts. Natalie DenHartog slugged .840 yet her 15 home runs ranks second on the team. Hope Brandner had a 247 wRC+ in Big Ten games with 10 dingers in those 22 games. Maddie Houlihan was last year’s Big Ten Tournament MOP yet is the fourth-best hitter in the lineup. Williams was as good as ever on Friday
against this lineup but fell off over the weekend. If she’s fresh and feeling it, Northwestern has a chance.
Final: #1 Michigan
If Northwestern gets to the championship, their likely opponent is Michigan (though Wisconsin or Ohio State could pull the upset). This would be Michigan’s first test against another top Big Ten team.
Numbers-wise, Michigan has the No. 1 scoring offense and the No. 3 scoring defense. That offense is led by freshman Lexie Blair, who hit .431 this year and struck out just FOUR times – once every 41 at bats! Faith Canfield hit .406 on the season and .421 in Big Ten games. Katie Alexander led the team with 10 home runs and Natalie Peters had more hit by pitches (10) than strikeouts (7).
On the mound for Michigan returns Megan Beaubien, last year’s Big Ten Freshman and Pitcher of the Year. Her numbers have taken a step back this year with a 2.06 ERA, though in just conference games she’s No. 3 in that category. Freshman Alex Storako has been nearly as good if not better; she finished the season with a 1.99 ERA and 182 strikeouts to 53 walks. Beaubien is still the ace, but it’s more of a 1a this year. Both are great options, especially since Northwestern hasn’t seen either; Northwestern never
faced Michigan last year. Of course, Michigan hasn’t seen Danielle Williams, either.
Michigan won the Big Ten regular season title, but Minnesota might be the tougher task, especially when Michigan’s conference strength of schedule is considered. A matchup with Northwestern would be by far Michigan’s toughest game since early March. The Wildcats would be much better prepared, and should these two teams meet, Northwestern should be a favorite, but only ever so slightly.