(EDITOR’S NOTE: INFORMATION FROM UNIVERSITY RELEASE)
MISSOULA – Montana and Portland State split a doubleheader on Saturday afternoon at Grizzly Softball Field as the teams’ three-game series opened in Missoula.
The Vikings built a 5-0 lead through their half of the third in the opener and went on to win 6-3 to snap the Grizzlies’ six-game winning streak.
In the second game, Montana pulled out a 3-2, eight-inning win thanks to a stellar defensive effort and a walk-off hit by Kylie Hayton.
It was a day that “stretched the limits of the game,” according to Montana coach Melanie Meuchel, who had to sit in her dugout and watch as Portland State won a game of inches in the opener.
Balls hit the lines, bloopers evaded outstretched gloves and ground balls found their way out of the infield like they had eyes.
“That’s softball. All you can do is keep pitching it. They hit a couple of balls well, but for the most part it was hits that were just getting by our gloves,” said Meuchel. “You’re wondering, when is it going to stop?”
Things finally turned in Montana’s favor late in game two.
The Grizzlies, behind an excellent outing by Maddy Stensby, took a 2-1 lead into the seventh, but the Vikings got a leadoff double and followed that with a game-tying triple that stayed in the ballpark by the length of a link of chain.
With the go-ahead run 60 feet from scoring, Jessica McAlister made the second out with a diving stop to her left on a line drive, one of four fantastic defensive plays by the freshman in the game.
Two pitches later, another line drive, this one to left field, where Meuchel had inserted Katie Jo Waletzko at the start of the inning. Waletzko charged and made a sliding catch to keep the game tied.
“She shows day in and day out at practice that she can defend with the best of them. One thing we’ve really taken pride in is our defense and our ability to make plays, and we keep feeding off it,” said Meuchel. “It was a big play for Katie Jo to step up and make that.”
Montana couldn’t win it in the bottom of the seventh despite having the bases loaded with two outs for Ashlyn Lyons, she of the red-hot bat. Her drive to the right-field corner was caught deep on the warning track, just inside the foul pole.
That set up the decisive eighth. After Stensby set Portland State down in order in the top, Madison Saacke led off the bottom with a single up the middle. Pinch runner Tori Lettus moved up to second on a failed fielder’s choice, putting two on with nobody out.
Dani Walker sacrificed the runners to second and third, giving Anne Mari Petrino the first chance to win it. Her ground out to first kept the runners where they were, bringing up Hayton with two outs.
On a 2-2 pitch, she dribbled one to the third-base side of the pitcher. With the runners off on contact, pitcher Emma Detamore had to make a clean play.
There was just enough indecision on her part — was somebody else in a better position to make the play, or should she do it? — that by the time she picked it up and threw to first, Hayton had already crossed the base.
Whether it went 35 feet, which it did, or 200 feet, the result was the same: a walk-off hit.
“I was just thinking that all I have to do is hit it where someone isn’t, and I ended up doing it,” said Hayton.
“Everybody on my team was cranking balls all day and they were getting caught, so mine was kind of the epitome of the game. It will pay you back in the end.”
Montana earned it after a frustrating opener that had the breaks all going Portland State’s way.
Montana starter Colleen Driscoll entered the game with a streak of 13 1/3 innings of scoreless work, but the Vikings pushed a run across in the first, four more in the third to go up 5-0 and end Driscoll’s afternoon on one of those days.
“That’s what Colleen and I talked about. We’ll make plays, but they kept coming up with balls that were just out of reach,” said Meuchel.
Wanting to show Portland State something different or just to change the mojo, Meuchel turned to Tristin Achenbach, who hadn’t thrown since April 6.
She struck out six in her 4 2/3 innings and allowed just two hits to give her team a chance, but the deficit was too large.
Delene Colburn made it 5-2 with a two-run home run in the third. Montana could only generate three hits over the final four innings against Alyssa Burke, who won her ninth game of the season.
One of those hits was a solo home run by Lyons in the bottom of the seventh, answering the run the Vikings scored in the top half but only cutting the deficit back to three.
Montana needed something special in game two, and Stensby delivered, motivated as she was sitting and watching the end of the first game.
“(Assistant coach Betsy Westermann) said something to the infield when we were down, something along the lines of, the team needs you,” said Stensby, who needed just 88 pitches for her eight-inning complete game.
“I kind of took that to heart. I knew the team needed me and my stuff had to be on. That was my mindset when I was warming up in the bullpen. I kind of went after it. I felt charged up.”
Stensby set the tone defensively by setting down nine of the first 10 batters she faced, aided as she was by a strong defense.
McAlister alone made four sweet plays, one a diving stop of a ground ball that took her into foul territory. She still made the play at first.
A catch of a foul ball nearly sent her into the Portland State dugout, and she had two diving stops of line drives, a pretty good afternoon for a converted catcher.
“It’s still kind of new for me, but I really like it. It’s definitely the hot corner. I just want to do the best for my team and stop the ball any way it comes to me,” McAlister said.
“My dad has told me since the beginning of the season that if I want to play third, it’s pretty simple. Just be a wall and do anything to stop the ball. That’s all third is.”
Stensby gave up an RBI single in the fourth, but had 1-2-3 innings in the fifth and sixth.
“She commanded the zone and threw pitches that our defense could help us with,” said Meuchel. “She controlled pretty much every at-bat and every hitter that was at the plate.”
Petrino put Montana up 1-0 in the second on a single to third base that scored Saacke. After Portland State tied the score in their half of the fourth, Petrino did it again in the bottom, singling to right to score McAlister.
Stensby put herself in a jam in the seventh, giving up the leadoff double and triple that put the go-ahead run at third with nobody out, but she forced a ground out to second, then McAlister and Waletzko made plays that were very likely game-saving.
“Coach Mel always says it’s going to take everybody to win,” said Stensby. “Those catches by Jess and Katie Jo, I was like, wow, my team is good. That’s all I could say in my head.”
Montana couldn’t get it done in the seventh, leaving three on, but the Grizzlies did in the eighth, their fourth win in five extra-inning games this season.
Montana had nine hits in the second game, 16 for the doubleheader. The top third of the lineup drove in all three runs in the opener. All three RBIs in the second game came from the bottom third. The middle third came through with six hits between the two games.
“I’m proud of our offense. I thought it showed up for both games,” said Meuchel. “We struck the ball well.”
Montana will try to win the series when the teams meet in the finale at 1 p.m. on Sunday.