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If Northwestern wants to return to Oklahoma City, it needs better clutch hitting

The ‘Cats’ bats went cold when it mattered most, relinquishing runners in scoring position — and putting the team’s season in jeopardy.

@NUSBCats on Twitter.

By simply hearing the fact that No. 12-seed Northwestern scored only one run in its Saturday evening loss to No. 5-seed Alabama, you likely wouldn’t be impressed. After all, the Tide themselves had only two runs scratched across in a game where pitching dominated.

In fact, in the broader two-game series between the Wildcats and Crimson Tide, the two sides have scored just seven total runs, with NU at four and Bama at three. That’s the consequence of two bonafide aces — Danielle Williams and Montana Fouts — pitching a combined 12 innings across the first two games, plus very strong performances from Lauren Boyd and Jaala Torrence.

Even in the midst of two stellar pitching staffs dominating and shutting down scoring, it wasn’t as if Northwestern didn’t have its chances to tack on. Therein lies the purple flaw that serves as a concerning takeaway from Game Two.

Yes, NU scored just once, but the team out-hit Alabama 7-6, plus drew two walks. Top offensive producers like Jordyn Rudd, Hannah Cady, Nikki Cuchran and Angela Zedak all found ways on base, with the top two collecting multiple hits.

However, the Wildcats could not string together enough successive positive plate appearances to drive in runs or keep rallies alive. Kate Drohan’s squad hit just 1-for-7 (.143) with runners in scoring position, left eight on base and, maybe most strikingly, advanced zero runners over the course of the game.

It wasn’t as if the Tide were vastly improved in those areas, with seven stranded and a dismal .125 RISP mark, but what matters is that someone stepped up with a situational hit. In Game Two, it was Ashley Prange, who smoked a single up the middle to score Larissa Preuitt in the seventh.

As early as the second inning, Northwestern appeared in business following leadoff singles from Cuchran and Zedak. However, Torrence proceeded to get flyouts from Maeve Nelson and Kelsey Nader, then induced a groundout from Grace Nieto. The ‘Cats scored nobody after having first and second with no gone.

In the third, NU mustered two two-out infield singles from Rudd and Cady before a Cuchran walk. With the bases loaded, Zedak was frozen by an offspeed pitch, striking out looking.

The Wildcats finally erased their goose egg in the fifth when Rudd singled and scored Skyler Shellmyer, but the team wasted a subsequent hit from Cady that established two on base with just one out. Cuchran and Zedak each hit routine fly balls to center, concluding an offensive attack.

In a low-scoring game of this nature, with limited opportunities to amass a crooked number in the run column, it becomes of heightened importance to work long at-bats and actually maximize scoring chances. Of course, one could attribute these sequences to tenacious pitching, but Drohan and NU will likely be frustrated by not capitalizing on somewhat consistent traffic.

Beyond improved situational batting, the ‘Cats simply need better outputs from several key hitters in their lineup. First-year Kansas Robinson, in the No. 2 hole, is 1-for-8 with five strikeouts across the first two Super Regional games. In Game Two, the bottom third of the NU order — Nelson, Nader and Nieto — went 0-for-8, plus Bridget Donahey struck out in a pinch-hit spot. Conversely, Northwestern’s one-through-five hitters have performed rather solidly, going 10-for-35 (.285) with two RBIs so far in Tuscaloosa.

In a matchup where the ‘Cats could have solidified their second straight Women’s College World Series berth, swept the Crimson Tide in triumphant fashion and maintained an unbeaten postseason record, the team squandered several key chances to conclude the Super Regional series in two games.

Now facing the reality of a win-or-go-home Game Three, Northwestern has no choice but to regroup and hone in on its biggest weakness in Game Two: a lack of clutch hitting.