Courtesy: Montana Sports Information
With its first win over Idaho State on Saturday at Grizzly Softball Field, Montana clinched a spot in the six-team Big Sky Conference tournament. Win No. 2 locked the Grizzlies into no worse than the No. 2 seed, which brings with it a first-round bye.
The sweep, which matched Weber State’s two wins on Saturday, also keeps Montana alive in its pursuit of its final regular-season goal: a Big Sky championship and bringing the tournament to Missoula.
No matter what happens on Sunday, when Montana hosts Idaho State in the series finale at 1 p.m., the Grizzlies will travel to Weber State next week for a three-game series that will decide all.
Montana (30-20, 13-4 BSC) put itself in that position with some stellar pitching on Saturday that limited Idaho State (12-24, 5-11 BSC) to just three runs in two games, all of them coming in a single inning, as the Grizzlies took 1-0 and 6-3 wins.
Michaela Hood won her 14th game in the opener with a four-hit, complete-game shutout. Anne Mari Petrino, who didn’t have a hit in Big Sky play until Saturday, produced the game-winning run with a two-out double in the bottom of the fifth.
In game two, Maddy Stensby entered in the top of the fourth and picked up the win as Montana rallied from a 3-1 deficit. She didn’t allow a hit in four innings of work, putting down all 12 batters she faced.
“We kind of have a pitching system going on, and I think I enjoy closing more than starting nowadays,” she said. “I think that’s kind of my role.”
Stensby needed just 40 pitches to pick up her fifth win of the season. She forced five fly outs and three groundouts, and struck out four.
“I was just trusting my defense and throwing my pitches in on the hands. Not necessarily strikes, just enticing pitches that they had to chase,” said Stensby, who has started nine games this season and come on in relief in 13 more.
“Whatever they want my role to be, I’ll take it and do the best I can with it.”
The opener was Hood’s second 1-0 shutout win in the last three weekends. She outdueled Idaho State’s Ashlyn Ames for the win. Both pitchers only allowed four hits.
“It was an old-fashioned pitchers’ duel, a flashback to the 90s with the white ball and 40-foot pitching rubber,” said coach Jamie Pinkerton.
“I thought Michaela was excellent. She felt like she was spotty and didn’t have her best stuff, but anytime you can go out and throw a four-hitter and not have your best stuff, I’ll take it.”
Neither team was able to break through until Montana’s half of the fifth, when Madison Saacke led off with a single up the middle for what would be the first step in scoring the game’s only run.
After a sacrifice and infield popup, pinch runner Kylie Hayton was on second with Petrino, Montana’s No. 9 batter, coming to the plate. Her most recent hit against a Division I opponent came back on March 19, so she was more than due.
She made solid contact against Ames and bounced one down the third-base line that kicked up chalk and scored Hayton, with Petrino ending up on second with just her second extra-base hit of the season.
“I just wanted to hit the ball hard on the ground and let everything take care of itself, and that’s what happened,” said Petrino.
“I’ve been working really hard with (assistant coach Brittany Gomez), so I’ve been getting better. It may not have showed because I wasn’t playing a lot, but I knew I was getting better. I’ve been seeing the ball really well, so I felt confident.”
That was enough for Hood, who pitched her 12th complete game and her fourth shutout while dropping her ERA to 2.09, with some help from her defense.
In the top of the sixth, Idaho State had runners on first and second with two outs when Alex Portesi singled up the middle. Center fielder Alex Wardlow fielded it and came up throwing, and she nailed Emma Bordenkecher at the plate for the inning’s final out.
Hood pitched a perfect seventh to complete the win.
Montana didn’t wait nearly as long to strike in game two. With two outs, Bethany Olea walked and Delene Colburn followed with a single down the right-field line that sent Olea to third.
When the throw from the outfield went to third, Colburn advanced to second, drawing a throw, which the third baseman threw away, allowing Olea to jog home for a 1-0 lead.
After being shut out for nine innings, Idaho State broke through in the top of the third. Kacie Burnett, the Big Sky’s leading hitter, triple home the first run to make it 1-1, and Bordenkecher followed with a home run to left center, her seventh of the season, off Montana starter Colleen Driscoll.
Facing their first two-run deficit since April 8, Montana answered in the bottom half of the inning. Olea got things rolling with a one-out single up the middle, the first of five hits in the inning. By the time the inning was over, the Grizzlies were back on top 4-3.
“I was really proud of the way we answered right back after they put up the three spot. We put up a three spot of our own to get the lead back, and from that point Stensby kind of seized the game,” said Pinkerton. “You can’t ask for more than she gave us.”
Montana hasn’t allowed more than three runs in its last seven games and more than five in its last 21, which has the Grizzlies 10 games over .500 and the team’s ERA at 3.16.
“What is happening right now is pitchers are coming in and making a bid to make me use them, and that’s only going to make us better,” said Pinkerton.
Stensby pitched in a one-run game until Montana scored a pair of unearned insurance runs in the bottom of the sixth on a Colburn double to right and a Madison Saacke single through the left side. Both players finished 3 for 4 and combined for three RBIs.
Weber State (29-14-1, 13-3 BSC), which defeated Southern Utah twice on Saturday, 3-2 in eight innings and 9-1 in five, hosts the Thunderbirds in a single game on Sunday, at the same time Montana is finishing off its series with Idaho State.
The Grizzlies and Wildcats close out the regular season next Friday and Saturday in Ogden, where tournament hosting rights will be determined. The three-day tournament opens on Thursday, May 11.