Update: After two weather-based postponements, Maryland and Rutgers will play a doubleheader Wednesday, May 3. The games will be at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m.
In a few short weeks, on Thursday, May 11, the top 12 Big Ten softball teams will begin their battle for the championship at the conference tournament in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Between now and then lies 16 days and eight games apiece for Rutgers and Maryland, the two teams residing in the 13th and 14th spots in conference standings, respectively.
Each team’s chance to make the tournament could very well be pinned on the doubleheader between the two teams this Wednesday.
Originally scheduled for last week but pushed forward due to inclement weather, the Terrapins will travel three hours north to play their mid-Atlantic Big Ten foe, the Scarlet Knights.
With games at 2 p.m. and 4:30 p.m., the tight doubleheader is — at least partially — a fight to avoid last place.
Maryland currently has two conference wins and Rutgers has three, but the story of the season goes beyond the record.
The Terrapins’ most recent win was against then-No. 18 Michigan, their third win against a ranked team this season and evidence of Maryland’s ability to topple the favored team. Rutgers, meanwhile, has just one more conference win than the Terps, but has one of the best fielding percentages in the Big Ten, a testament to its defensive potential.
Although Maryland struggled with its fielding toward the beginning of its season, often recording multiple errors per game, as of late the Terps’ infield has solidified.
“We’re getting more comfortable playing next to each other [in the infield],” head coach Julie Wright said ahead of last weekend’s Indiana series.
With Jordan Aughinbaugh (and occasionally Brigette Nordberg) at first, Skylynne Ellazar at second, Anna Kufta at shortstop and Juli Strange at third, Maryland’s infield has developed a consistent rhythm that guides its defense.
Wright said that the infield comes to practice an hour early two or three times per week to work with her and practice together.
“They’re doing everything they can to make sure they back up their pitchers,” Wright said.
The season began with a hot positional battle for the starting job at first,, a contest that helped develop Aughinbaugh and freshman Nordberg’s skills. While Aughinbaugh more regularly plays the position, having a solid backup option is key for a successful infield.
Development of a strong first base position combined with swapping Kufta, a third baseman, and Ellazar, who started at shortstop, took advantage of the Terps’ natural talent in the infield.
“I feel really good about their progress together,” Wright said.
Meanwhile Rutgers is ranked fourth in the conference in fielding, led by senior first baseman Bridget Carr who has converted all 79 of her fielding opportunities this season. Although Carr leads the pack thanks to her playing time, she isn’t alone, with eight other Rutgers’ players boasting 100 percent success rates on fielding opportunities.
In the bullpen, however, the Scarlet Knights struggle, providing Terps batters the opportunity to draw a walk or hit a double, two categories Rutgers’ pitchers have struggled with this season.
However, reliable offensive play will be key for Maryland to get runners on base and capitalize on the opportunity to score. Without consistency in batting and defensive play, the Terrapins may struggle against Rutgers’ strong points.
But, it goes both ways. The somewhat evenly matched teams will look to take advantage of one another’s weaknesses in order to avoid the basement of the standings.
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