The Minnesota Golden Gophers softball team will close out the Big Ten regular season this weekend with their toughest task of the conference season. The #13/8 Gophers will host the #19/14 Northwestern Wildcats in a three game series at Jane Sage Cowles stadium with the Big Ten title on the line for both teams. It is still very possible that neither team will win the conference and the Michigan Wolverines will steal the title away from both schools. All in all it should be a crazy weekend of Big Ten softball.
Minnesota comes into the weekend off of a three game sweep of Iowa last weekend that saw ace pitcher Amber Fiser earn her fifth Big Ten Pitcher of the Week award on the season, and her third consecutive award. Additionally Gopher freshman Natalie DenHartog earned her third Big Ten Freshman of the Week nod.
The Gophers are currently 18-1 in the Big Ten and are in third place behind Northwestern who is 20-0 and Michigan who is 19-1. The Gophers are at a major disadvantage due to the fact that they did not get to play one game earlier this season against Michigan State when weather mucked up the schedule. Thus, Minnesota loses tiebreakers to both the Wildcats and Wolverines if any of the teams end up with just one loss. To win the Big Ten regular season championship, Minnesota will need to sweep Northwestern and have Michigan lose at least one of three games to the Maryland Terrapins. Unfortunately for the Gophers, Maryland is 4-16 in the Big Ten this season.
But, even if the Big Ten regular season crown can’t be won, this weekend is huge for both Minnesota and Northwestern’s NCAA Tournament futures. The Gophers come into the weekend ranked #10 in the RPI. Northwestern is #11. A sweep by either team would have huge implications on their placement in the RPI ranking and could potentially determine if one or both teams would be able in theory to host an NCAA Regional in two weeks. A bad weekend for either team and they are probably resigned to the fact that they will need to hit the road for the NCAA Tournament.....again.
As for this weekend it should be a doozy. Northwestern and Minnesota are 1-2 in the Big Ten in pitching. Northwestern has a team ERA of 1.58 and has allowed just 33 runs in 133 innings. The Gophers are right behind with an ERA of 1.92 and have allowed just 41 runs in 127.1 innings. Offensively the Gophers have the advantage. As a team they are hitting .342 to the Wildcats .305. The Gophers .611 slugging percentage leads the conference.
In the circle it will be a battle of aces this weekend. Minnesota will throw Fiser twice most likely. In Big Ten play Fiser is 12-0 with a 1.38 ERA and 131 strikeouts. The only pitcher in the conference with better numbers than Fiser is Northwestern’s Danielle Williams. Williams is 13-0 with a 1.15 ERA and 129 strikeouts. Both teams secondary pitchers have been good as well in conference play. Minnesota’s Sydney Smith is 6-1 with a 2.53 ERA while Northwestern’s Kenna Wilkey is 3-0 with a 3.11 ERA.
Minnesota will need to use their advantage at the plate to win the series this weekend. The Gophers have three of the top six hitters in the conference in Makenna Partain, DenHartog, and Hope Brander. Partain leads the Big Ten in runs, DenHartog in RBIs and Brandner in home runs. If the Gophers can get to Williams and take advantage of the top of their lineup, it would be a big boon for Minnesota’s chances to sweep.
Game 1 will be at 6Pm Friday night and will stream on BTN+. Saturday’s game will begin at 3PM and will air live on ESPN2. Sunday’s finale will begin at 3PM and will air live on BTN.
No matter what happens this weekend Minnesota is locked into a top three seed in the Big Ten Tournament next weekend in Bloomington, Indiana. Minnesota has won the tournament three consecutive years and in four of the last five seasons.