In what was quite possibly the team’s most challenging week of regular season competition remaining on its schedule, Northwestern went .500.
The ‘Cats had a successful weekend, maintaining their NFCA ranking of ninth in the nation by securing their first series win over defending Big Ten champion then-No. 23 Michigan since 2009. They went 2-1 in the series, dropping the finale to the Wolverines, and then they fell to No. 25 Notre Dame in South Bend on Tuesday. In their victories, they were bolstered by clutch at-bats from their veteran leaders, namely outfielder Rachel Lewis and catcher Jordyn Rudd. In their losses, late scoring bursts from their opponents were too much to overcome.
NU kicked off its weekend series against the maize and blue with a Friday afternoon thriller that wound up going to extra innings. Billed as a pitchers duel on account of Danielle Williams and Alex Storako’s expected starts, both aces took a few blows before all was said and done, though Williams wound up the victor.
Williams faced her share of adversity early on. After striking out the first two batters of the game, she erred in her throw to first on a bunt attempt from UM’s Kristina Burkhardt, allowing the outfielder to reach safely and advance to second. Moments later, Burkardt came in to score on another throwing error, this time from third baseman Hannah Cady. After the ‘Cats went scoreless in their first time at the plate, the Wolverines tacked on another two runs on a double off the bat of Lexie Blair in the second to grab a 3-0 lead.
Williams soon settled in, though, and in doing so kept her team within striking distance for a late comeback. Without allowing another run in nine innings pitched, she struck out 16 batters, stymying the Michigan offense with precision.
Meanwhile, the ‘Cats’ bats heated up at the right time. After a second inning solo shot from Maeve Nelson cut the UM lead to 3-1, Northwestern’s offense went dormant in the three innings that followed. In the bottom of the sixth, however, back-to-back solo jacks from Lewis and Rudd knotted the score at three, and after both teams failed to put up a game-winning run in the seventh, the contest went to extras.
With Williams’ pitching remaining strong, the ‘Cats had an opportunity to strike in the bottom of the ninth with the bases loaded and Rudd at the plate with two outs. Rudd dropped a blooper over the head of Storako and into the hands of her second baseman and legged it out for a walk-off infield single, extending NU’s win streak to 13 and prompting the enthusiastic celebration that followed:
The next day, the teams began the series’ second contest despite some tough weather conditions. After snowfall at Sharon J. Drysdale Field increased in intensity, play was paused with two outs in the top of the third with the score tied, much to the chagrin of NU starting pitcher Lauren Boyd, who was ready to play through it.
Play commenced the next day at noon, when conditions were a bit more favorable. The ‘Cats drew first blood this time around, scoring a run in the bottom of the third on an RBI double down the line from first baseman Nikki Cuchran. Their lead wouldn’t last long, though, as a Sierra Kirsten double that just eluded the grasp of center fielder Skyler Shellmyer scored three before Kirsten herself came in to score on an infield single from Burkhardt, opening a 4-1 advantage for the Wolverines. Cady homered in the bottom of the inning and cut the visitors’ lead to two runs, but heading into the bottom of the sixth, the Wildcats found themselves trailing by a pair for the second-straight game.
Once again, it was Lewis and Rudd who came to the rescue. With one out and runners on first and second, Lewis stepped to the plate and launched a bomb over the roof of Welsh-Ryan Arena to pull her team ahead by one.
Just two pitches later, Rudd followed suit, extending NU’s lead to 6-4 after going back-to-back with Lewis for the second-straight game.
In the top of the seventh, Williams relieved Boyd and struck out all three batters she faced to secure the win and earn her sixth save of the season.
Unfortunately for Kate Drohan’s team, she failed to carry that momentum into the next game, which began just 20 minutes later. As the starter in the circle, she allowed two earned runs in the first. Neither team scored in the four innings that followed, with Rudd breaking the scoreless stretch with an RBI single in the bottom of the fifth to cut the Michigan lead to 2-1. The Wolverines responded with an RBI double from Taylor Bump in the top of the sixth, but NU got that run back on a Cuchran solo homer in the bottom of the inning to leave the UM lead at one heading into the final frame.
The Wolverines got to Williams in the top of the seventh though, placing five additional earned runs on her stat line before she was replaced by Lauren Dvorak. Though the ‘Cats plated Skyler Shellmyer in the bottom of the inning, it was far too little, too late, and they fell, 8-3, to close the series and end NU’s win streak at 14.
Two days later, Drohan appeared to give Williams some much needed rest on Tuesday, when her team hit the road to face Notre Dame. Dvorak, who got the start in Williams’ place, kept the hosting Irish at bay throughout her start, allowing just one run in four innings of work. A two-run blast from Angela Zedak in the top of the fourth meant that she was in line for the win.
But the wheels fell off the NU bus late once more, with Boyd, who relieved Dvorak, the victim this time around. Trying to hang on to the one-run advantage her team held, she allowed two runs in the bottom of the sixth to cough up the lead. Without additional run support in the top of the seventh, NU fell, 3-2.
Northwestern now sits at 24-6 and 5-1 in conference play. The Wildcats are tied for second in the B1G, trailing only the surging Nebraska Cornhuskers, who have won their last 10 games and are 5-0 against conference opponents. The ‘Cats will have a rested Williams ready to go for their weekend road trip to Columbus, where they’ll play a three-game set against 23-7 Ohio State.