Rutgers sweeps Indiana to clinch spot in Big Ten Tournament
Seven days after a mercy rule 11-1 loss to then-No. 21 Minnesota capped off a weekend in which it was outscored 26-2 by the Golden Gophers and saw its losing streak stretch to six games, the Rutgers softball team left its home diamond in a much better position.
The Scarlet Knights (23-26, 7-10) swept Indiana at the Rutgers Softball Complex over the weekend, pushing its current winning streak to five games after it swept its doubleheader against Maryland earlier in the week.
While the turnaround for the Knights was quick, it wasn’t the result of any drastic changes.
“Just focusing on what we need to do,” said head coach Jay Nelson on what the key to the recent success is. “We started having better at-bats, we started laying off the bad pitches and I think that’s what helped us.”
Rutgers opened its weekend with its most dominant display, taking the Hoosiers (24-22, 6-11) down in an 8-3 win. Senior third baseman Jordan Whitley paced the Knights at the plate with a career performance, driving in a career-high 4 runs on three hits in four at-bats.
“I just tried to do whatever I could for my team,” Whitley said of her approach. “Obviously we needed to score some runs so just taking each pitch one at a time, trying to see the ball and advance runners.”
After tossing three scoreless innings to start the game, junior pitcher Aubrie Levine found herself in a jam in the top of the 4th frame.
Nelson swapped junior pitchers by putting Shayla Sweeney in Levine’s place, a move which worked. After giving up a double and allowing two more runs in the fourth inning, Sweeney retired nine straight batters to close the game and earn her eighth win of the season.
Saturday was Senior Day for the Knights, both in name and in results on the diamond.
Rutgers was led by senior pitcher Dresden Maddox — who allowed three runs on three hits in five 1-3 innings to earn her ninth win on the year — in the circle and Whitley at the plate as it defeated the Hoosiers, 6-3.
Sweeney came to stop the bleeding for the second consecutive game. After tossing five scoreless innings, Maddox gave up a 3-run home run as Indiana reduced its deficit in half.
But once the Barrington, New Jersey, native took the circle, the Hoosiers were unable to score again, leaving two runners on base as Sweeney struck out the tying run twice to close the contest.
Nelson admits being nervous the emotions of the day would take over his team, but was pleased as it stayed true to itself.
“I was a little worried the second game because you’re all hyped up for senior day and you wanna do well and sometimes you try too hard, but we stayed within ourselves,” he said.
Following the trend of each game getting closer than the last, Sunday’s contest was the tightest of the three.
Indiana took the first lead of a game for the first time of the weekend, notching a run in the top of the 2nd inning. The Hoosiers were able to hold Rutgers scoreless for four innings, but it wouldn’t be denied on its quest to sweep the series.
Senior second baseman Stephanie Huang opened the bottom of the fifth frame with a single, before senior shortstop Melanie Slowinski followed with a single of her own. With two runners on base, sophomore catcher Sierra Maddox swung for the fences and connected, hitting a 3-run home run to give the Knights a 3-2 lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
Using the experience she gained a day earlier, Sweeney was able to get herself out of another jam in the bottom of the sixth inning, leaving runners stranded at first and third after giving up a run on a pair of doubles.
The senior retired the straight batters in the bottom of the seventh after surrendering a single to open the frame to lock up her second win of the weekend.
Despite facing a number of difficult situations throughout the weekend, Sweeney said she never felt she was down because of who she had behind her.
“I just knew that my defense was behind me and if I threw the ball low (and got) a grounder, pop-up, they were going to make the play so that helps a lot in any game, any situation,” she said. “I didn’t get nervous or anything like that knowing my team had my back.”
With a spot in the Big Ten Tournament locked up with the series win, weight has been lifted off the shoulders of the Knights. Regardless, they’ll approach their next contest against LIU Brooklyn on Wednesday the same way they have all season.
“I’m not thinking about it. It makes it easier, but you wanna keep going and get the highest finish you possibly can,” Nelson said of clinching a spot in the postseason. “All the team’s in the Big Ten are tough … they’re all tough, but you wanna finish as best you can … One game at a time. That’s the way we take it, one game at a time. We don’t look at what we did in the past, we look towards the future, the next game and that’s all we’re looking at … that’s what we’ve preached all year long.”