Entering Saturday afternoon’s game against Penn State, your Northwestern Wildcats boasted a record of 21-9, with a staggering 6-1 clip against conference opponents. They’ve won games on the backs of explosive offensive performances, as well as dominant outings from their starting rotation. But the job is not yet done. The ‘Cats have another 16 regular season games to play before the start of the Big Ten tournament on May 10, and the team’s strengths will be tested. Here are two series that project to provide the greatest challenges to the Northwestern squad:
Wisconsin Badgers (April 14-16)
The Badgers aren’t your typical dominant softball team; they aren’t some immovable object to the Wildcats’ dominant force. But they are a brick wall that the ‘Cats will have to climb over rather than break through. Simply put, NU will have to win in ways that come less naturally.
Wisconsin is not going to out-hit Northwestern. Despite a solid 17-10 record, the Badgers rank dead last in the Big Ten in hitting with a .254 average, and they rank in the bottom six in both their on-base and slugging percentages. They tend to swing early in counts, leading to a reduction in strikeouts but allowing opposing pitchers to get deeper into games.
Wisconsin wins softball games with their dominant pitching staff. The team ranks second in the Big Ten in ERA with a 2.26 mark, and its pitchers have walked only 28 batters in 182 ⅔ innings pitched. The Badgers don’t strike out the world like Rutgers and Ohio State do, but they limit walks and home runs better than just about anybody. This is a concern for the ‘Cats, whose offense is built more around walks and extra base hits than singles and manufactured runs.
They’ll have to face the Big Ten’s most dominant pitcher in Gabi Salo, as well as the crafty Maddie Schwartz and the power arm of Paytn Monticelli — arguably the toughest staff the ‘Cats have seen this season.
Rutgers Scarlet Knights (May 5-7)
For their final series of the regular season, Northwestern will take on Rutgers in Piscataway, New Jersey. The Scarlet Knights are right behind the Wildcats in the standings, trailing them by half a game as of April 6. But it could be argued that Rutgers has played better than the ‘Cats all season, and that half-game deficit is just a matter of luck being on Northwestern’s side.
Unlike Wisconsin, Rutgers is a very well-rounded softball team. The Scarlet Knights boast one of the best offenses in the Big Ten, ranking second in runs scored behind Indiana. They’re built around excellent plate discipline, which not only allows them to get on base and draw walks, but also to wait for their pitch and drive it deep. This approach helps them knock opposing starters out of the game early, regardless of whether they nibble on or attack the zone.
The Scarlet Knights also roster a great pitching staff, which despite allowing a lot of walks and base hits, leads the Big Ten in strikeouts. Perhaps Northwestern’s offense will be patient at the plate, but a Wildcat squad that currently strikes out more than just about anybody might struggle to lay off pitches that have no chance of being squared up.
The point is that Rutgers has talent up and down their roster, and it might be hard for the ‘Cats to find a way through. They’ll have to suppress the likes of slap hitter Kyleigh Sand and slugger Katie Wingert, and/or put up a crooked number against Raimy Gamsby, Jaden Vickers, Morgan Smith and the rest of Rutgers’ powerful pitching staff.