(Editor’s note: University of Montana media release)
MISSOULA – The moment arrived so quickly for Madison Saacke on Sunday afternoon at Grizzly Softball Field that she hardly had time to get nervous.
With Gabby Martinez on second in the bottom of the seventh, with two outs and the Grizzlies trailing by a run, Montana had Delene Colburn coming to the plate, with Ashlyn Lyons on deck.
There was only one way it would ever come down to Saacke, and that was if both Colburn and Lyons reached base without ending it. So Saacke didn’t even bother getting out of her catcher’s gear.
Portland State did the prudent thing and pitched around Colburn, walking her on four pitches, putting runners on first and second.
“I totally felt like Ashlyn was going to get a hit,” said Saacke, who batted fourth in the lineup, behind Lyons, but she didn’t. Instead Lyons got hit on the first pitch of her at-bat, bringing Saacke to the plate.
It was 3-2, there were two outs and the bases were loaded, and if there is anything out there close to a universal sporting dream that’s shared by nearly everyone, it has to be that situation, doesn’t it?
For every softball player? Every baseball player? Every little leaguer and every major leaguer? Anyone who’s ever had a stick in their hand and picked up a rock and sent one yonder, over an imaginary fence?
But it was a first, at least in reality, for Saacke, who fouled out to deep left field, just inside the outfield fence, in the first, lined out to second in the third, and singled over the left fielder’s head in the sixth.
“Down one, two outs, bases loaded, bottom of the seventh? No, I haven’t (ever been in that situation),” said Saacke.
“It was stressful. I do it normally, but I had to take a few more deep breaths when I was at the plate. There were a lot of emotions.”
Saacke had put a charge into the ball in each of her three previous at-bats on Sunday, and her final swing and contact felt the purest of all of them.
“It felt so good,” said Saacke, who has five career home runs, so she knows what a long ball feels like coming off her bat.
Maybe it was the breeze blowing in from left. Maybe it just missed the sweet spot. Maybe it was just another batted ball on the weekend that somehow found a Portland State glove instead of the turf.
Saacke’s blast seemed to hang in the air for a full minute before it was caught by Alexis Morrison, who was standing deep on the warning track, her outstretched hand touching the fence next to her.
Yeah, it was that close, as things were all weekend.
“It came off my bat and it was, okay, either be over the fence, go over the fence foul, hit the fence, just don’t catch the ball,” said Saacke, whose team fell 3-2 to lose the three-game series to the Vikings.
“We were making solid contact all weekend, and they were catching all of them. It just felt like we were very unlucky.”
The teams split on Saturday, with Portland State’s Alyssa Burk picking up the win in the Vikings’ 6-3 victory, Montana’s Maddy Stensby the win in the Grizzlies’ 3-2 walk-off victory.
The two pitchers matched up in the finale, and though the teams combined for just 11 hits, there were at least as many balls contacted just as hard that turned into outs.
Defense was being played at a high level by both teams. “It was a great game,” said Montana coach Melanie Meuchel. “I thought it was kind of a continuation of yesterday.
“There was quality pitching, but both offenses put pressure on the defenses. Both teams struck the ball well and put balls in play. It came down to a ball here and there, inches here and there. Some what ifs?”
This is how the game went: Stensby put down nine of the first 10 batters she faced. The other? Darian Lindsey’s no-doubt home run to straightaway center in the top of the first, hard-hit outs mixing with well-struck base hits.
Montana evened it in the third, when Lyons doubled to right-center with Colburn on first. The play would have left runners at second and third, but the throw back to the infield was misplayed, allowing Colburn to race home with the Grizzlies’ first run.
Portland State went up 2-1 in the fourth on an RBI single to right, 3-1 in the fifth on an RBI triple to right-center.
With Montana still trailing by two in the sixth, Tristin Achenbach relieved Stensby with runners on first and third and one out. The freshman had to come through if the Grizzlies were going to stay within reach, and she did, coaxing a foul out to Saacke behind the plate and a fly out to left field.
“Maddy gave us a chance. She kept us close, and Tristin came in and did a good job keeping them at bay,” said Meuchel. “With them at three runs, you feel like you have a chance to come back.”
Montana pulled within 3-2 in the sixth when Saacke drove one over Morrison’s head in left to score Colburn, but with runners on second and third, a hard-hit ground out to short ended the threat.
Achenbach had a 1-2-3 inning in the seventh, setting up Montana to win it in their final at-bat. The Grizzlies didn’t, leaving five runners on base over the final two innings, but that’s also the positive.
Sure, it was Montana first home series loss in league in more than two years, but Saacke and her teammates did a dozen things right for any one thing they did wrong on the weekend.
It was more inches here, inches there than anything to get down about. If Meuchel takes this version of the Grizzlies to Ogden in three weeks for the Big Sky Conference tournament, it’s a team that could win it.
“It’s a hard loss, but I thought we competed. We fought hard. I like the way we’re competing and the way we’re being an aggressor and putting some pressure on,” said Meuchel.
Montana has just two weeks of regular-season games remaining, a series at Northern Colorado next weekend, then home for Sacramento State the first weekend of May.