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Softball: Offense sputters, but pitching helps Northwestern remain .500

Even in the California sun, the ‘Cats’ bats were ice cold.

Northwestern Softball celebrates a win over No. 18 Kentucky
Northwestern Softball/@nusbcats

Even in the California sunshine, Northwestern’s bats could not heat up over the weekend at the Mary Nutter Collegiate Classic. In the ‘Cats’ four games over the weekend, they were only able to scratch across two runs in three of those games.

In a highly competitive weekend, NU faced three ranked opponents. The Wildcats expected to play five games this weekend but got off to a delayed start on Friday due to Portland State canceling the game with travel issues. Northwestern retook the field to start their third weekend of play against No. 22 Oregon, and the Ducks pushed across a run in the seventh inning to take down the ‘Cats 2-1. NU had an uphill battle on Saturday, playing a doubleheader against two top twenty teams in the nation. The Wildcats ran into No. 1 UCLA, who had eliminated NU from the Women’s College World Series in 2022, and fell short against the Bruins once again 2-1.

After two low-scoring losses, the Northwestern offense caught fire against No. 18 Kentucky, exploding for nine runs as the ‘Cats sailed to an easy 9-3 victory and Danielle Williams’ first win of the season. Closing out the weekend, NU eked out a 2-1 victory over the University of San Diego, pushing the Wildcats back to an even 6-6 at the end of February. As Northwestern prepares for March and Big Ten play a couple of weeks away, here are the takeaways from the ‘Cats’ West Coast trip.

The offense is struggling

There is still a ton of softball left to be played in 2023, but through the month of February, and especially this weekend, the ‘Cats’ offense has not looked great. On Friday, Northwestern managed four hits the entire game, with two coming off bunts that the Wildcats beat out. NU’s lone run came from Jordyn Rudd drilling a 2-0 pitch over the right field wall for her first home run of the year, which tied the game at one. Rudd continued to be Northwestern’s only source of offense midway through the weekend when she hit another solo shot with two out in the seventh inning against UCLA. Her homer was NU’s second hit of the game and the first hit since Skyler Shellmyer opened the game with a single.

Even against a 3-14 University of San Diego, who gives up 6.5 runs per game, Northwestern’s offense did not carry their hot bats from the night before into its early Sunday morning clash. If it was not for Angela Zedak’s two hits, including a two-run dinger to give NU the lead, the rest of the ‘Cats had two hits combined, an abysmal showing against a team that gives up over nine hits a game.

On the other hand, Northwestern has shown its ability to be a high-powered offense. Northwestern scored nine runs against the No. 18 team in the country, the most any team has scored against Kentucky in 2023. Zedak and Rudd have been carrying this offense so far, but NU is at its best when it is getting contributions from its middle infield in Maeve Nelson and Grace Nieto, who combined for four RBIs and four hits against UK. Shellmyer also provided a spark at the top of the lineup with three hits and two RBIs. If the Wildcats can get help from everyone in the lineup, they can wreak havoc in Big Ten play and get back to OKC.

Danielle Williams is regaining her form

I will be the first to admit, maybe I was too hard on the reigning Big Ten Pitcher of the Year. After her first four appearances this season, the fifth-year needed a performance that reminded everyone just how dominant is. She did that Saturday night against Kentucky.

Williams was everything coach Kate Drohan could ask out of her ace, throwing a complete game with seven strikeouts and one earned run. She looked in complete control and had much better control than her start against Clemson. The Wildcats’ ace, who had labored throughout multiple innings this season, did not give up the big inning that knocked her out of games after a few innings, escaping a jam and picking up her defense after an error.

Following up on her complete game Saturday night, Williams went back to work Sunday morning, With the ‘Cats leading 2-1, Drohan turned to her ace for the final three outs of the game, and Williams did her best Mariano Rivera impression. She slammed the door shut, sending USD down 1-2-3, ensuring Northwestern ended its West Coast trip with a victory.

As I say every week, Northwestern will only go as far as Danielle Williams takes them, and if the ‘Cats have this version of No. 24 for the rest of the season, they will have a great chance to get back to the WCWS.

Cami Henry is Northwestern’s X-factor

At the beginning of the season, one of the main questions I had looking at the roster was who Northwestern’s next pitcher would be after Williams. While Williams will carry NU this season, as she did with her 251 innings pitched in 2022, Cami Henry will play a massive role in the ‘Cats’ success. Henry, a graduate transfer from DePauw, has experience as a team's ace, starting 97 games before dawning the purple and white.

Since suiting up for the Wildcats, Henry has been solid, only giving up more than two earned runs in one game this year. This weekend, Henry came in and kept a red-hot UCLA offense off the board and gave her teammates a chance to mount a comeback, and followed it up with six dominant innings on Sunday against USD.

While not expected to carry the workload as she did at DePauw, Henry is more than capable of getting outs when called upon and is a perfect compliment to Northwestern’s other graduate pitcher.