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Softball: ‘Cats remain undefeated in Big Ten Series, take two of three against Michigan

NU leaves Ann Arbor victorious, but not without questions.

Northwestern Softball/Twitter

The Big Ten gauntlet is in full swing, and the No. 21 Wildcats are getting every team's best shot. After a grueling three-game set in Madison last weekend, Northwestern was back on the road this weekend for a series against Michigan. While the Wolverines are not as successful as in prior years, sitting at 9-5 in Big Ten play before welcoming NU, the ‘Cats had their hands full during the three-game set in Ann Arbor.

Northwestern opened up the series with an immaculate 4-3 victory in extra innings after Jordyn Rudd ripped an RBI single in the top of the 11th inning, putting the ‘Cats on top for good. Danielle Williams got the nod for game one, and Lauren Boyd finished off the back half of Friday night’s contest. Saturday’s game was one NU would rather forget. The Wolverines shelled Northwestern pitchers Cami Henry and Sydney Supple, giving up 15 runs in four innings. On the other side, the Wildcats’ offense mustered up only one hit all game, and NU was run-ruled for the second time this year, dropping the middle game 15-0.

In the rubber match of the weekend, the ‘Cats’ offense struggled to scratch a run across the board, but the pitching combination of Williams and Boyd held the Blue and Maize at bay, and the teams headed into the final frame still scoreless. In the top of the seventh, with the bases loaded and two outs, Kansas Robinson lined a ball back up the middle for a two-run single to break the tie and put the ‘Cats ahead 2-0. Rudd tacked on one more with an RBI single to make it 3-0, and Williams got the final three outs to seal a 3-0 victory and series win for the Wildcats. Although the three-game set went NU’s way, the squad’s performance did leave some question marks. Here are the major takeaways from this weekend’s series in Ann Arbor:

Northwestern found a way to win close games

In two of its games last weekend against Wisconsin, Northwestern held on to win 1-0 and had to play nine-innings to escape with a 4-3 victory. This weekend was no different. On Friday night, NU jumped out to a 2-0 lead on a pair of home runs by Angela Zedak and Robinson, but the Wolverines tied it back up on a two-run single in the fifth. In yet another down-to-the-wire game, the Wildcats did not flinch. Boyd replaced Williams in the seventh inning and kept finding ways to work out of trouble. Michigan loaded the bases in the bottom of the frame, but Boyd forced an easy pop-out to get out of the jam.

It took Northwestern until the 10th inning, but Nikki Cuchran’s scalding hot bat in conference play came through once again, ripping a ball through the left side of the infield to push the ‘Cats ahead 3-2. However, that would be short-lived as Boyd surrendered a double that scored the tying run. The winning run also tried to score on the double, but the cut-off throw from Maeve Nelson was on target to Rudd, who placed the tag and kept the Wildcats alive. Rudd was also the hero in the top of the following frame, lacing a ball into center field to score Skyler Shellmyer and put the Wildcats on top for good.

In the final game of the series, NU once again found themselves in a rock fight. Neither offense had done anything all game; in fact, Northwestern had only four hits all game before the seventh inning. Despite not scoring in 11 innings (including the prior game), the ‘Cats did not crumble under the bright lights. Zedak worked a leadoff walk, and Nelson, who has struggled at the plate this season, had an extremely successful bunt — reaching first safely and moving Zedak all the way to third. Ayana Lindsey, pinch-running for Nelson, swiped second to give the ‘Cats two runners in scoring position. With one out, Michigan intentionally walked Shellmyer to load the bases; however, Robinson made the Wolverines pay for giving No. 8 a free pass. The first-year, who was elevated to the two-hole today, ripped a single into center field for a two-run single. Rudd followed it up with an RBI of her own, dealing the knockout blow to Michigan.

While Northwestern would prefer to win every game handily, being able to close out tight games bodes well for the squad as it prepares for postseason play. As the competition increases, NU’s experience in tense moments will be an advantage.

Cami Henry’s performances are concerning

It had been a rather flawless transition for the graduate student after coming over from Depauw, but recently, Henry has struggled mightily in the circle. In her last start against Wisconsin, No. 14 had her season high in walks, allowing five free passes and two home runs. While the walks were less in Ann Arbor, the Wolverines punished any pitch from Henry.

In just three innings, Henry gave up six hits for seven earned runs — four off the long ball. It was the third game in a row that No. 14 had given up two homers, which has been a problem for her all season. However, she has usually gotten around her mistakes by getting batters to swing and miss. On Saturday, the fifth-year could not buy a strikeout — her lone K was her lowest of any start this year. If the transfer is not getting the ball by hitters, it sits in the zone just waiting to be barreled up and taken for a ride. Between the walks last weekend and the shelling this weekend, Henry needs to get back to her style of power pitching and blow-by batters if she wants to remain a key contributor to the ‘Cats’ postseason success.

Northwestern returns home to the J this weekend for a three-game set against Nebraska. Friday’s game is scheduled for 4 p.m. CT, followed by two 1 p.m. CT starts over the weekend.