(Story by Griz Communications)
MISSOULA — The Montana softball team opened its three-game home series against Nevada on Thursday with a 5-4 victory over the Wolf Pack at Grizzly Softball Field in Missoula.
The Grizzlies (8-21) fell behind 4-2 in the second but rallied with three runs in the fifth for their third win in four games.
The win came against a Nevada (17-10) team that entered the series with a 17-9 record and had won six of its previous seven.
“I feel like we’re a very gritty team. We have a little bit of salt in us. We don’t ever give up,” said coach Melanie Meuchel.
“We’ve had some miscues this season, but we’re learning and fighting along the way. We’re starting to work as a full unit and trusting that someone is going to step up and do something for us. And people are starting to step up. I’m just really proud of this group right now.”
Stepping up on Thursday, among many, were Tristin Achenbach and Morgan Johnson in particular.
Achenbach relieved starter Colleen Driscoll in the second inning and with her team trailing 4-2 after an earlier error opened the door for four unearned runs to cross the plate.
She didn’t allow a run over the final 5 1/3 innings to pick up her third win of the season. She gave up a base hit in the fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh innings, but only one. She worked out of it each time.
“She really settled in and started to throw with the velocity she has and just commanded her pitches,” said Meuchel. “You could almost see her turn it up a notch at the very end.”
Achenbach kept Nevada off the scoreboard, but it would still require a rally from the offense. It came in the fifth against Julia Jensen, a pitcher who entered the game with a 7-1 record.
Maygen McGrath roped a 2-2 pitch to the fence in left-center to lead off the inning, her second double of the game to give McGrath her first multiple-hit game in nearly a month.
Jessica McAlister followed with a base hit through the left side. A throwing error by the left fielder let McGrath score to make it 4-3.
Maddy Stensby kept it going with another double to left-center that scored McAlister and chased Jensen.
With the score tied 4-4, Kylie Becker advanced Stensby to third on a groundout to the pitcher for the inning’s first out. Kylie Hayton, who has now had consecutive two-hit games, flew out to center, but not deep enough to score Stensby, for the second out.
With the No. 9 spot in the order due up, Meuchel went to a pinch hitter: Johnson.
“The coaches do a pretty good job of letting us know an inning before that they might need you,” said Johnson. “I wasn’t sure if I was going to hit because Anne Mari (Petrino) was actually on deck.
“It was real quick, but I think I do better when I don’t think. I went up there and saw the ball, hit the ball.”
Johnson swung and missed at the first pitch that was low and out of the strike zone. It was all part of the process.
“I was swinging no matter what. That was my mindset. I was going to swing, mostly to get my timing down,” she said. “I knew we needed that run. I knew I needed to hit the ball.”
She did on the next pitch she saw, sending one back up the middle to give Montana what would be the winning run.
It was only the second time the Grizzlies have won this season after trailing in a game, their first time when falling behind by more than a single run.
On Thursday it was a mostly self-dug hole in which they found themselves. The response was self-generated as well.
“Yes, we’re going to have a misplay here and there, but what do we do on the backside? We’re starting to respond to things. People are starting to step up. It was just a good battle all day,” said Meuchel.
With Montana holding its first lead since the top of the second, it was on Achenbach’s shoulders to see it through, and she delivered.
She gave up a one-out double in the sixth but struck out the next batter, then induced an inning-ending fly out to left.
She got an assist from Cami Sellers in the seventh, when the first baseman scooped up a low, hard-hit grounder to get the all-important leadoff batter.
Nevada got a two-out single to put the potential tying run on base, but a groundout to second ended it.
“I think I had them off-balance a little bit, but also my defense played amazing behind me,” said Achenbach. “The plays behind me were what really helped give momentum to me during the game.”
Montana grabbed the lead early on, going up 2-0 in the bottom of the first.
With Brooklyn Weisgram on first with one out, Sellers singled down the right-field line to advance Weisgram to third.
Like she did in a game last weekend against Utah Valley, Sellers extended the play by going halfway to second. She drew a throw, which allowed Weisgram to race safely home. On the throw to the plate, Sellers moved up to second.
She would score to make it 2-0 when McGrath followed with a double down the left-field line.
Nevada came up with four runs off Driscoll in the top of the second, though it wasn’t necessarily her own doing. The Grizzlies gifted the Wolf Pack an opportunity, and they pounced.
With one out, Ashley Salausa ripped a line drive to short that was dropped for Montana’s only error of the day. A ground ball to second by the next batter should have been the final out.
By the time the inning was over, Nevada had scored four times on four hits, and Achenbach had relieved Driscoll.
Over the next five-plus innings, Achenbach would allow just four hits while striking out two and walking only one.
“If you come in with mindset of, Oh no, it’s 4-2, I can’t give up a run, that’s when you give up more runs,” said Achenbach. “I just came in and tried to be me and who I am on the mound and tried to forget the situation and come in with a fresh mind.
“That’s why Mel is going with someone new in that situation, for something fresh and different.”
The series continues on Friday with a game at 3:30 p.m. and concludes with the third game at 1 p.m. on Saturday.