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Softball: The pieces are there for Northwestern, but rarely all at once

To meet their potential, the ‘Cats will have to start firing on all cylinders soon.

Ryan Kuttler - NU Athletics

To be the best, you’ve got to beat the best.

Sure, it’s a cliche, but these words are rarely wrong in the world of sports. Thus far, beating the best has been somewhat of a struggle for Northwestern Softball. Despite the fact that the ‘Cats have lost only three of their 24 contests against teams below them in the conference standings, in their eight games against Michigan and Minnesota — the two teams in the Big Ten that sit ahead of them — the ‘Cats have emerged with only one victory.

So why is it that a team that has been utterly dominant against nearly the entire conference has struggled so mightily when faced against its fellow top-tier teams? The answer seems to lie in the run totals. Outside of their two series against the Golden Gophers and Wolverines, Northwestern has been incredibly effective in either keeping their opponents off the board, putting up large amounts of runs themselves, but rarely both.

Take their midseason, four-game series against of Wisconsin as an example. In the first game between the Wildcats and Badgers, an unusually spotty start from Danielle Williams gave the Badgers a 5-0 lead early. The ‘Cats bats were able to mount a comeback, though, putting up six runs in two innings to attain a win. In the following day’s doubleheader, both hitting and pitching had a game to shine, as the first leg featured a 15-run campaign by Northwestern’s offense to overcome the seven runs allowed by the starting pitcher, Lauren Boyd, and the second featured a complete game shutout from starter Morgan Newport. Williams started again in the series finale, and again was far from stellar, allowing another five runs. But, once more, the offense offered six runs of support, and the sweep was secured.

For the majority of their series against UW, Northwestern’s pitchers were not on point, but the ‘Cats got away with it because their hitters struck often. That becomes much more of an issue against teams like Michigan and Minnesota, whose pitching staffs have ERAs of 1.01 and 1.80, respectively, as compared to the Badgers’ arms’ 2.61.

The point, if it wasn’t already clear, is that Northwestern can’t simply excel in one facet of the game against powerhouse teams and expect to come away with victories. If they want to be the best, they’ve got to beat the best, and doing so will require them to put their best foot forward on both sides of the ball.

This isn’t an indictment on the skill of NU’s pitchers whatsoever. Though the Wisconsin series shows her at her worst, Williams has been absolutely elite this season, posting a 1.68 ERA and a 13-3 record that is the second-best in the conference. Newport too has been phenomenal overall with a 1.75 ERA, albeit over far fewer innings pitched. The offense has also seen some strong performers. Jordyn Rudd has led the way with a .374 batting average and 25 RBI — the fourth and second-best marks in the B1G, respectively.

With some of the conference’s best on the roster, Northwestern certainly has the potential to create some postseason magic. The key will be making sure that their stars — pitchers and hitters alike — align when it comes time to play the toughest competition. NU’s upcoming series against Illinois will be its best chance to practice such combined efficacy in the remainder of the regular season. The Fighting Illini have the Big Ten’s second-best team batting average and its third-best team ERA, and in order to pull out series win at the J, the ‘Cats will likely need to perform at a high-level at the plate and in the circle.

If they can accomplish that, then things will once again be looking up for the Drohan sisters’ team at just the right time. If they find a way to fire on all cylinders, they’ll have an opportunity to beat not only the best in the Midwest, but possibly some of the toughest competition in the nation as spring turns to summer.