Variety of off-speed pitches keeps hitters off balance

As expected, there was a dominant pitching performance when Missoula's Big Sky and Sentinel softball teams met Wednesday in Western AA action.

It just didn't come from the usual suspect.

The Spartans' Maren Buck tossed a one-hit shutout as Sentinel roughed up Big Sky ace Lisa Macki and the sloppy fielding Eagles' to take the 6-0 victory at McEaney Field. It was the second win in as many days for the Spartans (6-1, 8-2) and made it a clean sweep over the Eagles (4-3, 5-3) this spring.

At 5-feet-1, Buck (3-0) isn't going to blow many pitches past batters like Macki (4-2). Instead, the junior keeps hitters off balance with a variety of off-speed pitches. She struck out three and gave up her only hit to Big Sky catcher Holly Zeier in the second. Buck's only walk came in the final inning but didn't cause any damage as Zeier grounded into a double play to end the game.

"She's not overpowering but she mixes it up," Big Sky coach Al Stohle said.

Added Sentinel coach Brian Bessette: "Maren's a smart pitcher. She will hit her spots and change the speeds. From a batter's standpoint, that's intimidating."

Buck's nearly flawless performance was aided by a defense that seemed to be in all the right places at the right times.

Sentinel shortstop Jenn Feeley robbed Big Sky of a pair of hits in the fourth. The Eagles' Collette Phillips hit a sharp liner that Feeley snared from the air for the second out. Macki then dribbled one into the gap between third and short. Feeley was nearly on the outfield grass when she fielded it and fired a bullet to first in time.

Phillips again was robbed of a hit in the seventh, this time by second baseman Stefani Hertz on a play similar to her previous at-bat.

"I have full confidence in my defense," Buck said. "We have really stepped up our game."

The same couldn't be said for Big Sky, which muddled through the opening inning and then was forced to play catch-up.

Macki retired the first two batters on groundouts and appeared to get out of the first inning unscathed when she struck out Whitney Eriksson. But Zeier dropped the ball and then botched the throw to first base. That opened the door for the Spartans.

Feeley reached on an error by Phillips to put runners on first and second, and both scored on Jacque Chatriand's double. Nikki Pummill then put Sentinel ahead 3-0 with her RBI-single that brought in Chatriand.

"You have to understand that Sentinel right now has got a core of girls and they're playing good ball, they're playing with a lot of confidence. You can't overlook them," Stohle said. "I don't think we showed up to play ball today, and it showed. Defensively we're a better club than that. … You give them a chance and they're going to push you. And when they start pushing, you better play or they'll keep pushing, and that's exactly what happened."

Sentinel, which approached Macki with the same aggressiveness as earlier this season, kept attacking and didn't miss an opportunity when given one.

Pummill was hit by a pitch in the fourth and moved to second on another successful sac bunt, this time by Josi Carlson. Hertz came through with the clutch two-out single to score Pummill, lifting Sentinel to a 4-0 lead. Macki then hit her second batter of the inning to put runners on first and second, and Buck responded with an RBI-single to left field. Brandi Hills popped up to first to end the inning.

The Spartans put their final run on the board in the seventh. Buck, the only player with multiple hits, started it with a single and scored on Eriksson's two-out double to left field.

"We hit the ball better than we've ever hit against Big Sky," Buck said. "We just said when we get in the box we we're going to hit."

Said Bessette: "They were up for the challenge. (Macki) can control the game but we knew speed was coming so we were ready for it. We hit the ball hard and put it in play, and it's tough to do to Lisa."

Sentinel 300 200 1 - 6 6 0
Big Sky 000 000 0 - 0 1 2

Maren Buck and Nikki Pummill. Lisa Macki and Holly Zeier. W - Buck (3-0). L - Macki (4-2).

SENTINEL - Buck 2-3, Brandi Hills 0-3, Whitney Eriksson 1-4, Jenn Feeley 0-4, Jacque Chatriand 1-3, Nikki Pummill 1-2, Josi Carlson 0-2, Stefani Hertz 1-3, Mollie Wackler 0-2.

BIG SKY - Amanda Armstrong 0-3, Collette Phillips 0-3, Macki 0-2, Zeier 1-3, Lynnae Foshag 0-2, Amanda Stubb 0-2, Deidre Ranf 0-2, Heidi Fred 0-2, Meaghan Houlihan 0-2.

2B - Chatriand, Eriksson. RBIs - Chatriand 2, Buck, Eriksson, Pummill, Hertz.

Nikki Judovsky can be reached at 523-5265 or by e-mail at njudovsky@missoulian.com.

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