After showing signs of inconsistency at the beginning of the season, the Massachusetts softball team appears to be getting hot at the right time.
Through their first 21 games, the Minutewomen (21-11, 8-0 Atlantic 10) were sitting at a mediocre 11-10 mark. National Player of the Year candidate Sara Plourde was struggling with her command, walking 109 batters – more than all of last season – and posting a higher earned run average (2.77) than each of her previous two seasons.
The offense didn’t make life any easier for Plourde as well. UMass had scored three or more runs in only nine of its first 21 affairs, while also losing nine of the 11 contests in which it failed to reach the three-run mark. At that point, the team had only two batters hitting over .300 and only six hitting over .200.
Since then, the Minutewomen have dominated their opponents, winning 10 of their last 11 games while outscoring opponents 65-9.
Plourde has been on top of her game as of late, posting six shutouts in that stretch to go along with three no-hitters and a perfect game. Arguably her most significant improvement is the fact that she has only issued 39 walks, helping minimize her ERA to 2.14.
“[Plourde] has obviously [improved her command],” said UMass coach Elaine Sortino. “Two no-hitters on the weekend prove it. Even her walks are to good hitters, and she has no design to put the ball down the middle of the plate to them.”
Even as a senior, Plourde is getting better every day, says Sortino.
“Sara Plourde today is better than the Sara Plourde that pitched on Sunday against George Washington because she’s gotten better in practice,” she said.
The senior pitcher’s performance at the plate has also made her life easier in the circle. In only 38 at-bats, Plourde is hitting .342 – third on the team – with a team-high seven home runs and 18 runs batted in. Plourde also sits head and shoulders above the rest of the Minutewomen with her .921 slugging percentage, with the closest teammate to that stellar mark being freshman shortstop Quianna Diaz-Patterson at .574.
The rest of the team has picked up the offensive slack as well with three players hitting over .300 and nine hitting .200 or better, raising the team batting average to .271. In the last 11 games, UMass has failed to score at least three runs on just one occasion in a 1-0 triumph over Quinnipiac on March 28.
The key to the success of the Minutewomen has been getting back to the basics and doing the little things right, according to Sortino.
“We’ve had to really step it up in the last couple of weeks, and we’ve had great practices,” said Sortino. “With the extra days off, we’ve been able to really iron out some things.
“I believe it’s a process of practicing for improvement. We’ve been working on the little things and made some adjustments and continue to get better,” Sortino added.
In last Friday’s practice before the weekend series with George Washington, Sortino held a practice that she referred to as “boot camp” in order to prepare her players for the stretch-run.
“We kind of went at things from the beginning again, you know, as a way to stay fresh,” said Sortino. “When you’ve been going for so long, and we still have weeks to go until postseason play, it’s what you need to do to stay fresh.”
UMass looks to continue its winning ways on Wednesday in a rematch with Boston College, whom the Minutewomen beat 4-2 on April 4 at the UMass Softball Complex.
Juniors Teea Rogers and Cyndill Matthew led the way with two hits apiece while Plourde struck out 12.The victory gives UMass its 14th consecutive win over the Eagles (20-18, 2-10 Atlantic Coast Conference), who have since lost five of their last six games.
Wednesday’s contest will be played at Shea Field, where BC is 4-4 thus far, including an 8-5 letdown against Virginia Tech on Sunday.
The Eagles have five players batting over .300 this season, most notably junior Nicole D’Argento.
D’Argento, leads the team with a .356 batting average to go along with team-highs in hits (42), home runs (7) and RBIs (27). The junior has also made 27 appearances in the circle this season, posting a 9-9 mark with a 3.47 ERA,
Another player to watch in BC’s lineup is freshman Andrea Filler. The Fort Wayne, Ind. native is in the midst of a seven-game hitting streak following a 4-for-4 performance on Sunday that included two homers and three RBIs.
Sortino expects the Eagles to pose a significant challenge with such a talented lineup, which is a challenge that she enjoys as a coach.
“I love the close games because that’s what you live for,” said Sortino. “I think being able to come through, hold on and maintain your composure are really important. Anything that is close, I think, makes you stronger and makes the team greater.
“I think our kids, mentally, have grown with such significance and maturity,” Sortino continued. “They compete with a calm [mindset] and I think that’s why they’re in control.”
First pitch for Wednesday’s contest is set for 4 p.m. in Chestnut Hill.
Nick Canelas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @MDC_Canelas.