It’s the bottom of the first with two outs and Anna Kufta steps into the box. She is back in her typical spot in Maryland’s lineup: the three-hole.
Michigan pitcher Megan Betsa, ranked No. 1 in the NCAA in strikeouts, whirls her arm back and pitches straight into Kufta’s zone.
Betsa struck out Juli Strange and Amanda Brashear, but freshman Kufta doesn’t hesitate and swings – hard. Her bat connects with Betsa’s classic “spinny” pitch, as head coach Julie Wright described it, sending it flying over the left field wall to put Maryland up early, 1-0.
Since Big Ten play began, Strange, Brashear and Kufta have consistently held the first three spots of the Terrapins’ lineup, driving Maryland’s scoring ability up and down the lineup.
Strange, a fast runner with a talent for drawing walks, didn’t appear in the leadoff spot until March 18 against Buffalo. For most of pre-conference play, that position was held by center fielder Brashear.
“[Strange] has a really nice on-base percentage for a leadoff,” Wright said.
That Buffalo game, the first time the combination of Strange, Brashear and Kufta (in that order) appeared in the lineup, was a 6-3 win for Maryland, its fourth victory of the season.
And guess who scored the runs. One for Strange, one for Brashear and two for Kufta.
This potent combination has a chemistry found with few other leadoff combinations for the Terps, and after Maryland’s success against No. 18 Michigan, it seems to be Wright’s lineup of choice.
Each of their individual skills play to each position, a dynamic that has lit up the Terrapins’ scoring ability.
Strange, who has a .429 on-base percentage, gets on base nearly half the time, occasionally hitting a home run like in the bottom of the fourth against Michigan – Strange follows only Kufta in home runs.
“When the bottom of the lineup gets hot, then she’s in the position to get an RBI at the top,” Wright said.
Brashear, a former leadoff hitter, was moved to second because of her slapping style.
“Amanda’s really good at moving runners,” Wright said. “When Juli gets on, she can bunt her over or soft slap her over.”
The freshman is reliable, not flashy. While she isn’t the batter who is likely to hit a grand slam, her self-assured attitude lends her consistency.
“I can count on Juli to get on… I know what my job is,” Brashear said. “My job is to move her because Anna has the ability to hit a home run or hit to the outfield to score Juli.”
Then, after Strange makes it on base and Brashear bunts her over, there’s Kufta, ready to drive them in.
Hailing from Huntington Beach, California, Kufta is a “pure hitter,” as Wright put it. She leads the team in batting average, slugging percentage and home runs.
“She’s got the best eye at the plate,” Wright said. “I’m very comfortable with her when the game matters.”
This rhythm drives the Terrapins’ offense, setting the tone for the rest of the lineup.
Up against Indiana this weekend, which is ranked second in the Big Ten in fielding, strong hitting is critical to the Terps success.Strange, Brashear and Kufta are looking to continue to provide it.
The Terps face the Hoosiers in Bloomington, Indiana, at 1 p.m and 3 p.m. in a Friday doubleheader and at 1 p.m. Sunday.
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