It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t clean. It wasn’t a game for the sport’s purists, but it was a win for the Montana softball team on Thursday, and that was priority No. 1 as the Grizzlies opened play at the Big Sky Conference tournament at Ogden, Utah.
Montana scored eight runs on seven hits — Idaho State’s four errors, six walks and five wild pitches didn’t hurt — and used a four-run sixth to run-rule the Bengals 8-0 and advance in the tournament’s winners’ bracket.
The win sets up a rematch with Weber State, which advanced with a 1-0 shutout of Southern Utah on Thursday.
The Grizzlies and Wildcats, who will be meeting for the fourth time in eight days, will play at 2:30 p.m. on Friday in the only game of the day for both teams, with the winner advancing to Saturday’s championship game.
Montana (33-22) bussed to Ogden last Thursday, played a high-stakes, three-game series against Weber State on Friday and Saturday, then bussed back home. On Wednesday it was back on the bus for Utah. And in between: finals.
“With everything this team has had to go through the last week, I’m not surprised we looked tired today,” said Jamie Pinkerton, who earlier in the day was named the Big Sky Coach of the Year.
“I have to give them credit. They gutted it out and did what they had to do to win. We got a little bit of a lead, played well enough to hold on to it, then busted it open late.”
Montana, playing as the home team, got on the scoreboard in the second inning, scoring on a sacrifice fly, an outfield single and an infield single, all coming from the bottom of the order and Gabby Martinez at the top.
Anne Mari Petrino slapped a two-out single up the middle to score Saacke, and Martinez followed with an infield single that she beat out to drive in Wardlow.
“The bottom of the lineup was huge. That was really key for us today,” said Pinkerton. “Whenever you can win without relying on the middle of the order, that’s always a good thing
“Maybe they’ll get on a roll and the middle of the order will do what they did last weekend.”
Pinkerton started freshman Michaela Hood, and she improved to 16-5 with the shutout, but nothing came easily.
Idaho State put runners on base with hits in five of the six innings, but Hood, who threw 114 pitches, managed to work her way out of every jam she faced.
“She didn’t have her normal velocity, so she pitched to contact,” said Pinkerton, who would have preferred his ace have an easier outing in Montana’s tournament opener.
“She didn’t have a lot of non-stress innings, and that doesn’t bode well for pitching for three days. I would have liked her to have a less stressful outing, but we got the W.”
Montana scored once in the fifth, when pinch runner Kylie Hayton scored from second on a fielder’s choice throwing error by the pitcher, then won it in the sixth, largely due to Idaho State.
After Wardlow singled to center with one out for her second hit of the day, ISU reliever Mariah Mulcahy walked the next four Montana batters, which forced in two to make it 6-0.
With the bases still loaded, Olea grounded one to short that was thrown away for an error and scored Petrino. Colburn ended the game with an RBI single to left that made it 8-0.
And that sets up another matchup against Weber State on Friday afternoon. It may be personal for Montana, facing a team that rallied on Saturday for an extra-innings win that cost the Grizzlies the Big Sky championship, but Friday’s winner gets a bigger prize than revenge.
The winner advances straight to Saturday’s championship game, where it would be one win away from a title and the NCAA tournament. The other team drops to the losers’ bracket.
That team would need to win one more time on Saturday morning just to return to the championship. Once there it would have to twice defeat Friday’s winner.
The preferred route means a much, much higher chance of holding up the trophy on Saturday.
“I think the team knows what’s before them, the opportunity they have tomorrow and what they have to do to take advantage of it,” said Pinkerton.
“Whoever wins tomorrow doesn’t win the tournament but definitely gets the upper hand. Our players know the task at hand.”