Montana softball: Griz split Friday games with Southern Utah

Sydney Stites hit a game-winning, three-run, inside-the-park home run that gave Montana a 5-2 victory. (GoGriz.com)

By GoGriz.com

What Sydney Stites gave Southern Utah with a two-run error in the sixth inning in the Thunderbirds’ 2-0 series-opening win on Friday afternoon at Grizzly Softball Field in Missoula, she took back in game two with a game-winning, three-run, inside-the-park home run that gave Montana a 5-2 victory.

Not that it balances out for the sophomore from Bozeman.

“It’s not like, Oh, I got a big hit, so that means my error doesn’t matter. It does matter, and I feel awful about that play,” Stites said. “It was disappointing, because they ended up winning that game.”

The decisive play in the opener came with two outs in the top of the sixth in a scoreless pitching battle between Montana’s Michaela Hood and Southern Utah’s Kirsten Hostetler.

Entering the sixth inning, Hood was no-hitting the Thunderbirds, and Hostetler had held the Grizzlies to a single hit, a big departure from last year’s series in Cedar City, when the teams combined for 55 runs in their three games.

Payton Hart broke up the no hitter with a single down the left-field line to open the sixth. With two outs and Hart at second, Montana intentionally walked Kendall Kapitzke, Southern Utah’s best hitter.

The tactic appeared to pay off when Karlee Manzione sent one to right field, but the ball froze Stites just long enough that she could only get the tip of her glove on it while backpedalling. It went off her glove and rolled to the fence, scoring both Hart and Kapitzke.

“I just didn’t read it well. I kind of coasted on it, and I should have gotten all the way back and gotten under it,” said Stites.

The runs would be the only ones scored as Hostetler held Montana to two hits and Southern Utah became the first team in more than a year to shut out the Grizzlies on their home field.

Bethany Olea had an infield single in the first inning that extended her hitting streak to 16 games, and Stites had a single in the seventh. The Grizzlies went down in order in four of the five innings in between hits.

“Hostetler had good stuff. She was hitting her spots, but I also don’t think we had a good approach,” said coach Jamie Pinkerton. “We just never really adjusted, and when you don’t adjust, things don’t usually work out for you.”

Montana didn’t have a hit in the fourth inning, but it was the Grizzlies’ best chance to score. Olea reached on a throwing error by the shortstop, and Delene Colburn reached base one batter later on a throwing error by the third baseman, giving Montana runners at the corners with nobody out.

Stites fouled out to first, and Madison Saacke lined out to second. Not wanting to see the inning end without a run, Pinkerton deployed Colburn as a decoy off first base. She drew a throw to second, and Olea broke for home. She was thrown out at the plate, keeping the game scoreless.

“We had some opportunities early in that game and didn’t cash in,” said Pinkerton. “And they took advantage of our one mistake.”

The outcome gave Hood (8-3) her first loss since March 9, despite striking out nine while giving up just three hits. The two runs allowed were both unearned, which dropped her ERA to 2.19.

Montana struck early for runs in game two, going up 1-0 in the first on a sacrifice fly by Stites and 2-0 in the third on an RBI double by Colburn that scored Olea from first base. Olea got on with a one-out line drive to right center that extended her hitting streak to 17 games.

That staked starter Maddy Stensby to a lead, but she pitched her way into trouble in the fourth when she walked the first three batters. Montana got the inning’s first out at the plate, but with the bases still loaded, Stensby walked the next batter to make it 2-1.

She was replaced by Sara Stephenson, a 14-game winner last season who has been getting used mostly in relief as a sophomore.

Stephenson got the first batter she faced to line out to center and worked out of the jam by getting the next batter to fly out to Stites in right.

“Right now I’m kind of in a situation where I’m not doing the best this season, so every opportunity I get I have to take it and do my best. That’s all I can do at this point,” Stephenson said.

“This gives me a little bit of confidence, but I think there are still a lot of things I have to work on to get myself back to where I was.”

Stephenson gave up the tying run in the fifth on an RBI double, but she earned the win when Stites came through in the bottom half of the inning.

With two outs and Gabby Martinez at second and Colburn at first, Stites drove one to straightaway center that hit off the top of the fence and bounced back into play. With the center fielder on the ground, it was off to the races.

“It would have been easier for everybody if it had cleared the fence, if she had gotten in the weight room,” joked Pinkerton.

“Once I saw the center fielder didn’t get up and I saw the other outfielders running for the ball, I knew right then I was going to gamble for the third run because Syd runs well.”

Stites, who drove in four in game two, her most since totaling six RBIs against Santa Clara on Feb. 19, scored easily for her sixth home run of the season.

“It felt great off the bat. I honestly thought it was out,” she said. “But then I rounded first and saw it hit the top, so I kept running because I didn’t know what else was going to happen.

“I was happy to make a contribution to help us win.”

With Montana holding a 5-2 lead, Pinkerton went back to Hood. She gave up a single in the sixth but put Southern Utah down in order in the seventh to pick up her third save of the season.

Montana (18-18, 3-2 BSC) and Southern Utah (7-18, 3-2 BSC) will wrap up their series with a single game on Saturday beginning at 1 p.m.