Montana softball: League-leading Griz on road to Portland State

Montana has four series wins in four weekends of Big Sky games, and the Grizzlies are the only team who can make that claim. (GoGriz.com)

By GoGriz.com

The Montana softball team, still holding a slim half-game lead over Weber State for first place in the Big Sky Conference, will play a road series this weekend at Portland State.

The Grizzlies and Vikings will play a doubleheader on Saturday starting at 2 p.m. (MT) and a single game on Sunday, also starting at 2 p.m. (MT).

Where they stand: Montana (24-19, 9-3 BSC) has used a season-high five-game winning streak to remain atop the Big Sky with a 9-3 league record. Weber State (24-14-1, 8-3 BSC), which has won four of its last five Big Sky games, is close behind at 8-3.

(Note: The Wildcats had one of their games at Sacramento State on the opening weekend of the league schedule rained out.)

Portland State (6-29, 4-8 BSC), which is under first-year coach Meadow McWhorter, is just 6-29 overall, but four of those wins have come in league, including a series win over Northern Colorado.

The Vikings have lost five straight games by a combined score of 52-6, with a 0-3 trip to Weber State last weekend that resulted in losses by scores of 13-0, 6-1 and 17-3. PSU lost 9-0 at Oregon State on Tuesday.

What’s at stake: Portland State may be tied with Northern Colorado in the basement of the conference at 4-8, but the bottom five teams in the league standings have either four or five wins, and six of the Big Sky’s eight teams make the tournament, so the Vikings are in the mix with three weekends remaining.

Montana has four series wins in four weekends of Big Sky games, and the Grizzlies are the only team who can make that claim. Montana went 2-1 against North Dakota, Southern Utah and Sacramento State, and last weekend swept Northern Colorado in Missoula.

With three weekends remaining, including a head-to-head matchup against Weber State on the final week of the regular season in Ogden, Montana controls whether it gets bumped off the top spot.

But a lot of shakeup can happen over the course of nine games. Montana and Weber State, which plays a series at Idaho State this week, could continue to separate themselves, or the Grizzlies and Wildcats could be brought back closer to the chase pack this weekend.

Coverage: Options for both live stats and video are available at gogriz.com.

Series preview: Given the teams’ opposite trajectories — Montana has won five straight, Portland State has dropped five straight — the easy thing to do would be to assume the Grizzlies should have no trouble winning the series or maybe even thinking sweep.

After all, Montana’s offense came to life with 20 runs in the Grizzlies’ final two games against Northern Colorado, and Portland State’s 52 runs allowed on its five-game losing streak have ballooned the Vikings’ team ERA to 7.75, highest in the Big Sky by more than 1.5 runs.

Just don’t expect Montana’s Jamie Pinkerton, who has more than two decades of Division I coaching experience, during which he’s seen enough to know he has to worry about every opponent his team will be facing, to view it quite so simply.

“I would say, so what?” he said when presented with the recent play of each team. “We’ve got to go in with the right mindset, prepared to play one game at a time. We’ll try to win the first one and go 1-0. Then we’ll try to win the second game and go 1-0, then the third and go 1-0.

“If we start thinking we need to win every game to remain atop the standings, that’s when things can start going haywire. We’ve got to keep blinder on and worry about the next task at hand.”

Montana has won four straight games in the teams’ series, including a three-game sweep in Missoula last season and another win at the Big Sky tournament in Ogden, but the Vikings took two of three when the teams played in Portland in 2015, including a 9-1 thumping in the series finale.

“We’re going on the road to a mostly unfamiliar place where we didn’t play well the last time we went there,” said Pinkerton, whose team had had little luck at Sacramento State before breaking through two weeks ago.

“But that was the same for Sacramento, and we won that series. Our goal should be the same it’s been all year. Win the series and let everything else shake out.”

Former PSU coach Barb Sherwood, who had a three-year record of 38-106, was let go last spring. The search for her replacement didn’t have to extend very far. McWhorter was coaching at Mt. Hood Community College, where she went 468-146. She sent six players to Portland State.

The Vikings opened the McWhorter era losing its first nine games this season and entered league with a 2-18 record, but PSU won three of its first five Big Sky games. It won 10-1 over Southern Utah on April 8 but hasn’t won since.

“They are in the hunt,” said Pinkerton. “They are playing better now than they were at the start of the season for the simple fact that they are getting used to Coach McWhorter’s system.”

Portland State’s recent struggles have come in the circle. PSU uses two primary starters — sophomore Alyssa Burk, who is 2-11, and freshman Emma Detamore, who is 4-17 — and both have ERAs north of 7.0.

Montana hit .373 in its three-game sweep of Northern Colorado at Grizzly Softball Field last weekend and combined for 20 runs in games two and three.

“I think we’ve done a better job of hitting our pitch instead of the pitcher’s pitch. Instead of going up and hitting a strike, we’re hitting our strike,” said Pinkerton. “We started getting runners on base, and we were more relaxed.

“Hopefully we can sustain it. With the our pitching the way it’s been, we can be very dangerous if we can combine our pitching and defense with that kind of hitting. Our pitching staff has kind of given us the ability to find our way. If we can continue to do what we’re doing, I like our chances.”

At 3.47, a year after posting a team ERA of 5.26, Montana continues to reside among the Big Sky leaders in that category, currently second behind Sacramento State (3.13).

Michaela Hood, now 12-4 with a 2.27 ERA, pitched a one-hit shutout against Northern Colorado in last weekend’s series opener. Montana’s offense carried the load in games two and three as the Grizzlies won 9-4 and 11-5.

Montana notes:

* Delene Colburn was named the Big Sky co-Player of the Week on Monday after batting .600 against the Bears, with two doubles, two home runs, six runs scored and eight runs batted in. It was her second Player of the Week award of the season, the third of her career.

* Colburn, at .408, and Bethany Olea, at .405, rank third and fourth in the Big Sky in batting average. Olea went just 1 for 8 against the Bears, but she walked three times and scored five times.

“I know we’re going to get quality at-bats from them, whether they make an out or get a hit and drive in runs,” said Pinkerton. “They are at the point where if they don’t come through, something feels wrong.

“They are leaders by example, and you just know when you get to the park what you’re going to get. You know with those two in the 3-4 spots that you have a good chance to get some production.”

* Northern Colorado hit three home runs in games two and three last weekend, the same number of home runs Montana had allowed the previous 20 games combined. One of those came off Hood, who has given up only four home runs all season in more than 120 innings of work.

Still, the Grizzlies are at 24 home runs allowed for the season. Last year the staff gave up a Big Sky-worst 55.

* Montana opened its series against Portland State in Missoula last season with a five-inning no-hitter from Maddy Stensby. She allowed a leadoff walk in the second, otherwise she set down the other 15 batters she faced.

The Grizzlies swept the series with 8-0, 5-3 and 8-2 wins, then used a seven-run fifth to rally for a 14-8 win in Ogden at the Big Sky tournament in a loser-out game.

* Sydney Stites batted .444 against Northern Colorado and has collected hits in 10 of Montana’s 12 Big Sky games to raise her season average to .270, the highest it’s been since early March.

* Pinkerton may have found his new every-day leftfielder in McKenzie Phillips, who batted .429 against UNC. She went 3 for 7 at the bottom of the order with a walk against UNC.

* Madison Saacke, who started all three games against Northern Colorado at catcher, hit .400 against the Bears, as did Ashlyn Lyons. Both drove in three runs.

* Stensby pitched 4 2/3 innings of three-hit, one-run relief to pick up her third win of the season in game two against Northern Colorado. She finished off game three in place of Hood, pitching 1 1/3 innings of scoreless relief in a non-save situation.

This week in the Big Sky:

Montana (24-19, 9-3 BSC) at Portland State (6-29, 4-8 BSC) — The Grizzlies look to stay hot at the plate, win another series and add to the Vikings’ losing streak.

Weber State (24-14-1, 8-3 BSC) at Idaho State (12-19, 5-6 BSC) — The two best hitting teams in the Big Sky are both capable of putting up big numbers. The Bengals are at home, but the Wildcats have the better pitching. The non-Montana series to keep an eye on for Griz fans.

North Dakota (19-25, 5-6 BSC) at Northern Colorado (16-30, 4-8 BSC) — Fighting Hawks will send Big Sky ERA leader Kaylin VanDomelen at the Bears twice as UND pushes for its first Big Sky tournament appearance.

Sacramento State (14-23-1, 4-7 BSC) at Southern Utah (11-22, 7-5 BSC) — The Hornets have the Big Sky’s best ERA but have scored two or fewer runs in seven of their last 10 games.

Upcoming: Montana will host Carroll for a doubleheader next Wednesday starting at 3 p.m., then wrap up its regular-season home schedule with a three-game series against Idaho State on Saturday and Sunday, April 29-30.

Then it’s off to Ogden for a three-game series, followed by the Big Sky tournament, which will be played at a location that likely won’t be determined until the final weekend of the season.