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Softball: ‘Cats’ win streak ends at 10, but take series at Iowa

Batters one through nine are contributing to the Northwestern offense, but its ace’s recent performances raise concerns.

Northwestern Softball/@NUSBcats

After a phenomenal opening week at the J, Northwestern softball hit the road and headed to Iowa City for its first away Big Ten series against the Hawkeyes. After rain washed out Friday’s game, the ‘Cats were locked in a battle with Iowa all weekend. It took NU 10 innings to break the tie and rally for a five-run inning to take the first game of the set 8-3. The Wildcats played two on Sunday with varying results. After cruising to a 5-0 victory in game one, Northwestern was walked off in game two, snapping their 10-game win streak and losing 6-5. As Northwestern dives into conference play, here are the takeaways from its first Big Ten series away from Evanston.

The ‘Cats are getting contributions from everywhere

It was a slog early in the season to scratch runs across the board, but the Wildcats' offense has started to click recently and it has alleviated the pressure on the pitching staff. In the first game of the set, Nikki Cuchran continued to rake in Big Ten play, batting three-for-five — including a home run and an RBI single. She added three more RBI over the weekend and finished the series hitting .545. The ‘Cats’ leadoff hitter Skyler Shellmyer recorded a base hit in every game, as did Angela Zedak. Maeve Nelson’s discipline at the plate and on the base path shined through, as the fifth-year drew three walks and scored three runs over the weekend. With one through nine getting on base for the Wildcats, everyone can push runs across the board and smother the opponent's will with long rallies. NU had numerous multi-run innings this weekend, scoring in bunches and pushing games out of range for the Hawkeyes to mount a comeback.

Danielle Williams’ inconsistency is alarming

What may be normal for most pitchers in college softball feels a lot different when it is coming from the reigning Big Ten Pitcher of the Year. In her three conference starts this season, the fifth-year has given up seven runs, one run and five runs over 15 innings. In two of the games, her ERA was over eight, and she had a ball leave the yard in both games. While her strikeout numbers are still incredibly high, punching out 19 Big Ten batters so far, she has struggled to maintain control of the strike zone. Williams, who had only walked 12 batters this season, allowed eight Hawkeyes to reach base via the free pass this weekend. The three doubles she gave up in game two of the doubleheader were the most against No. 24 since almost exactly a year ago when the Wolverines knocked five two-baggers. Am I ready to hit the complete panic button on Williams, not yet; however, the vast fluctuations in her performances inside the circle have been concerning.

Swiping a bag

While the ‘Cats have been good at swinging the bat, they have been even better at grabbing the extra bag. The Wildcats stole six bases this weekend, three in two games. Shellmyer had two steals in back-to-back games, her first after not taking an extra base in three games. All four steals put her in scoring position, and the ‘Cats capitalized on three of those opportunities. Four other Wildcats swiped a bag, including the first of the season for Nelson and Kelsey Nader. Bridget Donahey also recorded her first steal of her collegiate career. By stealing bases, the ‘Cats’ baserunners put pressure on opposing pitchers, diverting attention from NU’s power hitters like Jordyn Rudd, Hannah Cady and Cuchrun, allowing the ‘Cats to take advantage and drive in runs.

The ‘Cats return to action Wednesday night, traveling to Champaign to take on the Fighting Illini. First pitch is scheduled for 6 p.m. CDT and can be seen on the Big Ten Network.