In a midweek matchup between two teams taking a break from their conference races, Montana swept Carroll on Wednesday afternoon at Grizzly Softball Field in Missoula.
The Grizzlies (28-20), who are eight games above .500 for the first time in program history, struck for seven runs in the bottom of the fourth in the opener to run-rule the Saints, who were counting both games as exhibitions, 11-0.
In a pitchers’ duel in game two, the combination of Sara Stephenson, who had a career-high 11 strikeouts, and Michaela Hood was enough to overcome a complete game from Allison Williams as Montana finished off the sweep, 3-2.
Carroll was passing through town on its way to a weekend series against Corban in Salem, Ore., as the Fighting Saints try to make the Cascade Collegiate Conference tournament.
Montana, a half game out of first place, hosts Idaho State on Saturday and Sunday as the Big Sky Conference hits its penultimate weekend of league games.
“I think both teams got what they wanted out of these games,” said coach Jamie Pinkerton. “They have a big conference series coming up, and we’re in a conference push. It gave us a shot to get out on the field.”
Pinkerton mostly went with his regular starters in both games but was able to get in some late-game substitutions in the opener, after Montana had taken control.
“Pitching-wise, everybody got work except for Colleen (Driscoll), and she got a bullpen (session) today, so I’m happy with that,” Pinkerton said.
Montana was 4-0 against Carroll the last two years, outscoring the Saints 43-1, and that trend continued in the opener.
Stensby gave up a pair of singles in her four innings of work, and Montana got what would be the only run it would need in the bottom of the first when Delene Colburn drove in Ashlyn Lyons on a groundout.
Montana scored three in the third, two coming on a Dani Walker single to center with runners on second and third, then put the game away in the fourth.
The Grizzlies sent 12 to the plate and scored seven runs on seven hits, the big blow a three-run home run from Colburn.
“We got on a roll and kept the line moving with some frenzy hitting,” said Pinkerton. “That was a big inning for us. I could see the confidence level rising.”
Young, who hadn’t pitched since March 17, worked the fifth and didn’t allow a hit.
“Stensby did a great job,” said Pinkerton, “and we got Haley an inning of work. I would have liked to get Haley some more work in game two, but Allie Williams did a good job of coming out and keeping it close.”
For the first time in six regular-season meetings, Montana and Carroll were in a tight battle in the second game.
After allowing a hit to the game’s leadoff batter, Stephenson put down the next 17 batters she faced. The only run the Grizzlies could muster against Williams through the first five innings was an RBI groundout by Madison Saacke in the second that scored Colburn, who doubled to lead off the inning.
“Williams did a good job, but I think we helped her along,” said Pinkerton. “We got some hitting counts and kind of got overzealous and got ourselves out.”
Montana never gave up the lead because of the performance of Stephenson, who was making just her fifth start of the season.
Stephenson was Montana’s go-to pitcher at the end of the season last year and earned second-team All-Big Sky honors. She got roughed up in her first two starts this season at Montana’s season-opening tournament at Northern Iowa and has been seeing time mostly in relief ever since.
“It’s definitely been a sophomore-slump kind of year,” said Stephenson. “Early in the year I kind of blew it, so now I’m just trying to make the most of every opportunity.
“I was free last year. This year after a couple of bad starts and not playing as much, I’ve gotten in my head and tried really hard to be perfect, and you can’t pitch like that.”
Anna ApRoberts snapped Stephenson’s streak of 17 straight putouts with a double to right center with two outs in the top of the sixth and Montana leading 1-0, but Stephenson got a strikeout, what would be her 11th and final of the game, to end the inning.
Montana scored twice in the bottom of the sixth, the first when Bethany Olea tripled to left center to drive in Kylie Hayton, who was pinch running for Ashlyn Lyons after she opened the inning with a single up the middle.
A Saacke sacrifice fly to right scored Olea to make it 3-0 going into the seventh.
Stephenson walked the leadoff batter on four straight balls in the seventh, and Ashley Davis followed with a home run to straightaway center to cut Montana’s lead to 3-2 with nobody out and give the Saints a spark.
That led Pinkerton to make the call to Hood, who plunked a batter but didn’t give up a hit as she collected a four-batter save, her fourth of the year.
Stephenson, in her longest outing of the season, picked up her first win since March.
“Sara had a great game, but she got into trouble in the seventh, so we brought in Michaela to put out the fire,” said Pinkerton.
“I thought it would be a great confidence boost for her to finish, but I didn’t want to be greedy and try to get her a complete game. After the leadoff walk, I sensed she might be a little tired, because she hasn’t thrown seven inning in a long time.”
Eight players had hits for Montana in the opener, with Olea going 2 for 2, Colburn 2 for 3 with four RBIs. Lyons scored three times.
Saacke drove in two of Montana’s three runs in game two without recording one of the Grizzlies’ five hits, on a groundout and sacrifice fly.
Montana will play a doubleheader against Idaho State on Saturday starting at 1 p.m. The teams will play a single game on Sunday, also starting at 1 p.m.