Northwestern (28-9, 13-1) swept the weekend series over Wisconsin (22-14, 7-5) at Goodman Diamond. That said, the Badgers kept each game close and proved they aren’t far behind elite conference opponents like the Wildcats.
Wisconsin had rolled through its first nine Big Ten matchups in dominant fashion, going 7-2 against Michigan State, Illinois and Purdue — three of the conference’s worst teams. The Big Ten-leading and 20th-ranked Northwestern Wildcats were sure to offer stiffer competition when they came to Madison for a three-game set this weekend, and that they did.
Consistent across the three games was Wisconsin falling behind early. The Badgers, who’ve made a habit of building early leads in 2023, couldn’t get their offense going until the later innings, if ever.
Friday | 1-0 L
Starter Maddie Schwartz lost the strike zone in the second inning. The trusty veteran hit a batter, walked three and gifted Northwestern what proved to be the game’s only run. Schwartz (L, 8-8) then settled in and completed an impressive, seven-inning start with five strikeouts, four walks and four hits allowed.
Wisconsin matched Northwestern’s four-hit total and squandered a few opportunities with runners in scoring position. The most glaring was the sixth inning, when a Kayla Konwent walk and singles by Brooke Kuffel and Ellie Hubbard loaded the bases with nobody out. Anything from a slow roller to a fly ball would’ve tied the game and a base hit likely would’ve given Wisconsin the lead, but Christaana Angelopulos struck out looking. Peyton Bannon then grounded into a double play to end the inning.
The Badgers went quietly in a 1-2-3 seventh inning and lost the winnable series opener. Northwestern’s Lauren Boyd and Danielle Williams (W, 10-1) combined to strike out nine Badgers while walking just two.
Saturday | 6-3 L
Paytn Monticelli, who allowed three runs in four innings of Wednesday’s doubleheader versus St. Thomas, started Saturday’s first game. Like Schwartz, the freshman’s control issues gave Northwestern an early lead — two walks and a hit-by-pitch put the Wildcats up 1-0 in the second inning.
Unlike Schwartz, however, Monticelli (L, 5-2) was unable to settle in and exited in the third inning after allowing a pair of two-out hits and a second run.
The Badgers finally scored in the bottom of the third as Katie Keller turned on an inside pitch and launched a no-doubter to right field.
Tessa Magnanimo struggled in relief, allowing a solo home run in the fifth and three more runs in the sixth. Keller homered again in the seventh to cut Wisconsin’s deficit to 6-3. A Konwent walk and Kuffel single brought the tying run to the plate with nobody out, but the middle of the order couldn’t keep the rally going.
Three runs — all thanks to Keller — was an underwhelming total considering Wildcat starter Cami Henry’s lack of control. Henry (W, 10-1) walked five batters and hit one in six-plus innings. Wisconsin made seven fly-ball outs versus Henry, though, consistently failing to advance runners and capitalize on the free passes.
Saturday | 4-3 L
Northwestern opened the scoring once again with three unearned fourth-inning runs off Schwartz. Second baseman Rylie Crane’s error opened the door for Northwestern’s rally. The freshman Crane has impressed with a .274 average, but her defense has proven costly on various occasions.
The Badgers responded with one run on Ellie Hubbard’s RBI single in the bottom of the fourth. It likely would’ve scored two had pinch-runner Bree Mitchell held up at third on the previous play. Mitchell had been thrown out trying to score from first on a wall-ball double by Keller.
Wisconsin still trailed 3-1 with two outs in the seventh when pinch-hitter Emily Bojan floated a bloop single to right. Molly Schlosser followed with a game-tying blast to center field — excellent timing for the sophomore’s first career home run.
The series finale was Schwartz’s game to win or lose, and she finally faltered in the top of the ninth. Shortstop Maeve Nelson drew a leadoff walk and came around to score on a sacrifice fly, giving the Wildcats a 4-3 lead.
Down to their final out once again, the Badgers threatened again with an Ava Kuszak double. Northwestern intentionally walked Konwent, opting to instead face the red-hot Keller. Williams (W, 11-1) struck Keller out to secure the weekend sweep. Schwartz (L, 8-9) got unlucky in her nine-inning, 124-pitch effort.
A step behind
To be considered among the Big Ten’s best, Wisconsin must find ways to advance runners and manufacture runs in close games like these. The Badgers’ unremarkable speed is one factor and isn’t an easy midseason fix. Wisconsin ranks 10th in the conference with 29 stolen bases. Their 65% success rate ranks last, though, so running more often may not be a solution.
Despite the three losses, there were a lot of positives about Wisconsin’s performance this weekend. The Badgers actually outhit Northwestern 20-19 and drew 12 walks to the Wildcats’ nine — this suggests both Wisconsin’s pitchers and hitters can compete with the Big Ten leaders.
Keller clearly wasn’t fazed by Northwestern’s formidable pitching staff in her two-homer Saturday performance. In fact, the first baseman has been a tough out for all opponents lately. Over her last 10 games, Keller has hit .467 with three doubles, four home runs, five walks and nine RBI while striking out just four times. Keller now boasts a 1.054 OPS and will be an essential piece of Wisconsin’s postseason push.
Schlosser appears to be heating up as well, going 7-for-15 with four RBI over the last five games. Typically hitting ninth in the order, Schlosser is setting up Keller, Konwent and Kuffel for more RBI opportunities while putting up runs on her own, as seen with the game-tying home run Saturday.
Wisconsin, now fifth in the Big Ten standings, will look to get back in the win column with a Wednesday doubleheader versus ninth-place Minnesota (25-16, 6-6) at Goodman Diamond. The Badgers will then hit the road for consecutive weekend series at Nebraska (30-13, 10-4) and Maryland (29-13, 6-8).