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Saturday, June 22, 2024

Shuffled lineup pays off as Badgers sweep weekend in Boca Raton

After two shaky weekends to begin the season, Wisconsin impressed in Boca Raton, winning all four games against three different opponents.

Wisconsin Softball (6-6) collected four wins this weekend at the Joan Joyce Classic in Boca Raton, Florida. The Badgers took down Boston College (8-7) before beating North Carolina (6-9) twice and finishing the tournament by walking off Villanova (6-9). 

Third baseman Skylar Sirdashney’s emergence as an effective leadoff hitter, combined with Wisconsin’s middle-of-the-order power and some stellar pitching, helped the Badgers even up their early-season record after a rough start. 

Friday | 6-0 W vs. Boston College

Infielder Brooke Kuffel starred in the Friday contest. She opened the scoring with a solo home run — her second of the season — in the second inning, then added an RBI double in the fourth. A run-scoring walk added some insurance in Wisconsin’s three-run seventh inning. Kuffel, batting cleanup for the Badgers, finished 3-for-3 with three RBI, a run and a walk.

Maddie Schwartz, meanwhile, took care of the Eagles without much trouble. In six shutout frames she struck out five and held BC to five hits. The Eagles had runners in scoring position in the first, third and fourth innings, but Schwartz ended those threats with two strikeouts and a double play. 

The Badgers had a modest seven hits in the victory, but BC pitchers did issue nine walks. Katie Keller led the way with three free passes. Sirdashney drew a walk as well, and she also doubled in a two-hit, one-RBI performance.

Friday | 4-2 W vs. North Carolina

Wisconsin continued the trend of scoring early in games, putting up three runs in the first inning versus UNC. Sirdashney drew a leadoff walk before Kayla Konwent homered to dead center, putting the Badgers up 2-0. Center fielder Molly Schlosser, who’d been fairly quiet at the plate, extended the lead with an RBI triple.

Paytn Monticelli, at her absolute best, dominated in the circle for Wisconsin. In a 120-pitch complete game the freshman yielded four hits and two unearned runs — a sixth-inning home run followed an Ellie Hubbard error. Monticelli’s 13 strikeouts was the highest single-game total for a Badger pitcher since 2012.

Wisconsin bested UNC despite losing the baserunning battle — the Badgers went 0-for-3 in stolen-base attempts, while the Tar Heels stole three bags on four attempts. Luckily, Monticelli was too untouchable for UNC to drive in those runners. 

Saturday | 5-4 W vs.  North Carolina

The second tilt against the Tar Heels started exactly like the first: Sirdashney got aboard and Konwent followed with a two-run shot, her third home run of the season. 

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Left fielder Peyton Bannon made it 3-0 with a sacrifice fly in the fourth. The Badgers added another two runs in the seventh on a Sirdashney RBI double and a Keller sacrifice fly. 

Monticelli, back in the circle after her Friday masterpiece, wasn’t missing as many bats but still got through 6.2 scoreless innings. One out from being shut out, however, the Tar Heels started teeing off. A single, double, single and triple later, Monticelli was done and Tessa Magnanimo entered with a 5-3 lead. 

Magnanimo couldn’t get the job done, either, allowing a walk and an RBI single. With the tying run on second, Wisconsin handed the ball to Schwartz, who induced a groundout and secured the 5-4 victory. 

Saturday | 3-2 W vs. Villanova

The Badgers trailed for the first time all weekend when Schwartz allowed a second-inning run. Keller tied it in the third, driving in shortstop Ellie Hubbard as Hubbard had reached second on her first extra-base hit of the season. 

Villanova chased Schwartz with two hits and a run to begin the fourth inning. In three-plus innings she allowed six hits and two runs with a pair of strikeouts on 57 pitches.

Gabi Salo entered and posted the best performance of her career. The junior, who totaled just 16 innings with unremarkable results from 2021-22, pitched four hitless, scoreless innings with six strikeouts. Salo now boasts a 0.75 ERA through 9.1 innings this season and has proven her worth as a valuable relief option and spot starter.

Salo’s stellar relief work set the stage for a Badger victory. Ava Kuszak walked and reached third, setting up Sirdashney for a walk-off RBI bunt

Continued improvement

The 2022 Badgers were a very flawed team, with a shallow lineup that didn’t put enough balls in play and, conversely, a pitching staff too prone to contact. 

Through 12 games, Wisconsin has shown signs of considerable improvement in those areas. Kuffel has slashed .333/.429/.722 with two home runs and six RBI in the cleanup spot, forcing pitchers to attack Konwent. Unsurprisingly, they’re having little luck, as Konwent has a 1.068 OPS with three home runs and nine RBI. 

Whereas in 2022 the Badgers used Konwent as a leadoff hitter, they now slot her in the three-hole. This is now possible thanks to the arrival of Keller (.429 on-base percentage) and the elevation of Sirdashney to the leadoff spot. Sirdashney went 4-for-13 in her first weekend atop Wisconsin’s order and is having her best season to date, shattering previous career-highs with a .306/.375/.417 slash line. 

As a whole, Wisconsin’s lineup is finding various ways to drive baserunners home. In Boca Raton, the Badgers scored twice on sacrifice flies and twice on sacrifice bunts — including Sirdashney’s game-winner. 

Wisconsin is still striking out a lot — third-most in the Big Ten with 71 punchouts thus far — but that’s less concerning as long as the Badgers manufacture runs this effectively. 

While the lineup develops its identity, Wisconsin’s pitching staff remains a massive strength, ranking third in the conference with a team ERA of 1.89. After finishing 13th in strikeouts last season, the Badgers’ middle-of-the-pack ranking through 12 games is certainly encouraging. And, as long as Monticelli keeps logging innings, Wisconsin will enjoy a steady stream of strikeouts. 

Look for Salo to get more opportunities before conference play picks up in late March. If she continues to shine, there’s no reason she can’t be a legitimate contributor alongside Schwartz and Monticelli, possibly pushing Magnanimo further down the depth chart. 

The Badgers now head to Bloomington, Indiana for five games this weekend. They’ll face UW-Green Bay, Indiana University-Purdue, Purdue Fort Wayne and Indiana University. 

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