Northwestern softball sweeps Nebraska in weekend series
By Patrick Winograd
The Northwestern Wildcats (33-10, 18-2 B1G) faced potentially their toughest test of the conference schedule this weekend, taking on the Nebraska Cornhuskers (32-17, 12-8 B1G), who entered the weekend tied for second place in the Big Ten.
The Wildcats were more than ready for the challenge, and ended up sweeping the weekend series with Nebraska to clinch at least a share of the Big Ten Title for the second season in a row.
This was the most surprising result of the series, as Northwestern would eventually secure a run-rule victory over Nebraska. The game started out slow, as both teams failed to tally a run through the second inning. But in the third inning, everything changed. After Nebraska was shutout in the top of the third, Northwestern responded with an 11-run inning to take an 11-0 lead. Skyler Shellmeyer started off the inning with a single, Jordyn Rudd walked, and with two runners on base, Hannah Cady put the ‘Cats on the board with a three-run home run.
Northwestern’s next seven batters reached safely, and after two walks, two hit-by-pitches and three singles, the ‘Cats had a 7-0 lead, with the bases loaded and one out. And that’s when, if things hadn’t gotten out of hand already, the Wildcats broke the game wide open. Jordyn Rudd took a 3-1 pitch and hammered it over the left-field wall for a grand slam that put Northwestern up 11-0. Nebraska bounced back with two runs in the top of the fourth to cut Northwestern’s lead to 11-2, but the ‘Cats weren’t done scoring yet.
The first three batters of the inning reached base safely, and after an error plated the first run of the inning, Kansas Robinson stepped up to the plate and hit Northwestern’s second three-run home run of the day to extend the lead to 15-2. Seven more runners reached via an error, a walk, four singles and a double, and Northwestern had a 19-2 lead before an out was recorded in the bottom of the fourth inning. Northwestern would tack on three more runs to make it a 22-2 game, and despite allowing two runs in the top of the fifth, Northwestern walked away with a statement 22-4 run-rule victory in the first game of the series.
I was lucky enough to be on the call for this game, and what a game it was. When Northwestern won 22-4, it seemed as though things couldn’t get any better, but the finish to Saturday’s game might have been even better than the first game of the series. Northwestern loaded the bases in the first inning as a result of two hit-by-pitches and a walk, and Nikki Cuchran drove in the first run of the game with a sacrifice fly. The ‘Cats did not do any more damage in the inning, but still held a 1-0 lead heading into the second inning.
That is when Nebraska got into a rhythm. Mya Felder led off the second with a solo homer to tie it up at one run apiece. In the top of the third, Nebraska scored again. A Sydney Gray RBI groundout scored Billie Andrews (who reached via a double, and advanced to third on a single), and Nebraska loaded the bases with two outs before Lauren Boyd wiggled her way out of the jam, and the ‘Cats escaped the top of the third inning with just a 2-1 deficit. Northwestern tied the game up with a Kelsey Nader RBI single, but could not put up more runs, despite loading the bases. But in the top of the fourth inning, the Cornhuskers loaded the bases with two singles and a walk. Nebraska scored their third run from a bases-loaded walk, and then an error by Grace Nieto allowed the Cornhuskers to plate two more runs, giving them a 5-2 lead. Nebraska added to their lead with a Billie Andrews solo homer in the top of the sixth and things looked grim for the ‘Cats.
Northwestern was trailing 6-2 entering the bottom of the seventh, but refused to give up without a fight. Cady opened up the inning with a double, and the crowd started to get rowdy. Cuchran drew a walk, and a wild pitch scored Cady (who got to third via wild pitch), and advanced Cuchran to second to cut Nebraska’s lead to 6-3. Angela Zedak hit a single, and all of a sudden, the tying run came to the plate in the form of Maeve Nelson with runners on the corners and no one out. Nelson walked, and the tying run was on first base. After an Emmie Farnam pinch-hit strikeout, Lauren Sciborski stepped up to the plate as a pinch hitter with the bases loaded and still only one out in the inning. Sciborski scorched a double into the gap in left-center field, and Cuchran, Zedak and Nelson all came around to score on a bases-clearing, game-tying double.
Northwestern couldn’t win it in the seventh, but went into extra innings with all the momentum. Danielle Williams allowed just three runners on base in the top of the eighth and ninth combined, and Northwestern came to the plate with the top of the order looming near the end of the bottom of the ninth. Nader led off the inning with a double, and after a Sciborski strikeout and Shellmeyer groundout, Nader was a wild pitch away from scoring the winning run for a walk off. But Robinson wasn’t going to wait around for a wild pitch. Robinson smoked a 1-0 pitch over the right-center field wall for a two-run home run to give the ‘Cats a walk-off, 8-6 victory over Nebraska in the second game of the series.
Northwestern had already won the series on Saturday, but a win on Sunday would secure at least a share of the Big Ten Title, so the ‘Cats still had plenty to play for. Katelyn Caneda reached via walk, and Felder hit her second home run of the series to give Nebraska a 2-0 lead in the top of the first inning. Northwestern was able to quickly respond, however. Shellmeyer singled, Rudd singled, and with two runners on and one out, Cady hit a three-run homer to give the ‘Cats a 3-2 lead. Cuchran followed up the homer with a single, and a double with two outs by Nelson scored Cuchran and gave the ‘Cats a 4-2 lead at the end of the first inning.
Abbie Squier keyed a rally for Nebraska, leading off the top of the second inning with a home run. With two outs, Alina Felix got on base with a single, and Billie Andrews hit a two-run home run to retake a 5-4 lead for Nebraska. Northwestern did not get a base runner in the bottom of the second, and Felder added to the lead with her second home run of the game, and third of the series to make it 6-4 Cornhuskers. Northwestern had runners on second and third base with two outs in the bottom of the fourth inning, but couldn’t cut into the Nebraska lead.
Nebraska had another big inning in the fifth. Billie Andrews led off the inning with a solo home run. Nebraska loaded the bases with no outs on a double, walk and hit-by-pitch. Squier was hit by a pitch, driving in the second run of the inning, and keeping the bases loaded. Caitlynn Neal struck out, but Gray scored from third on the wild pitch that resulted in the strikeout to give Nebraska a 9-4 lead in the fifth. But the comeback magic wasn’t over yet for the Cardiac ‘Cats.
A double play put Nebraska in a great position for a shutdown inning, but they were not able to capitalize. Zedak walked, Nelson singled, Nader singled, and just like that the bases were loaded for the ‘Cats in the bottom of the fifth. Kendall Peterson came through with a pinch-hit, two-RBI single, and advanced to second on the throw, while Nader scored on the errant throw. That cut the lead to 9-7, but Northwestern wasn’t done yet. Shellmeyer singled to score Nieto (who pinch-ran for Peterson). Robinson reached with a walk and Shellmeyer advanced to third on a wild pitch while Robinson advanced to second. Rudd reached on an error that scored Shellmeyer to tie the game at 9. A wild pitch in the mud allowed Robinson to score and give Northwestern a 10-9 lead.
After a one-hour, 58-minute rain delay, the bottom of the fifth inning finally concluded with Northwestern still in the lead. Nebraska only had one batter reach base safely in the sixth and seventh inning combined, and Northwestern was able to escape with a 10-9 victory in game three, a series sweep over last year’s Big Ten runner-up and, most importantly, a share of the Big Ten Title.
Northwestern’s final series of the regular season will be on the road against Rutgers (31-22, 8-12 B1G). Any win next weekend will clinch the second-straight outright Big Ten Title for the ‘Cats, who have found their stride offensively heading into the postseason.