The San Diego State Aztecs softball team completed its first 9-0 Mountain West Conference start since the 2003 season. The win was the third straight conference sweep as they defeated the University of Nevada 3-1 in a Sunday afternoon tilt at the San Diego State Softball Stadium.
The Aztecs have been led in their strong conference start by the pitching of Maggie Balint (11-4, 1.33 ERA), DeeDee Hernandez (6-3, 1.67 ERA), Allie Light (3-1, 3.29 ERA), and Dani Martinez (4-2, 3.95 ERA). The four pitchers have a combined 2.02 ERA, which ranks among the nation’s leaders. Mac Barbara (.406 BA), Jillian Celis (.339 BA), and Bella Espinoza (.394 BA) have led the way at the plate for the red-hot Aztecs as they looked to continue their winning ways.
Maggie Balint started in the circle for the Aztecs in game three of the weekend series, and they faced off against Blake Craft (1-11) for the Wolfpack. Balint started the opening game on Friday night and threw a three-hit shutout over the Wolfpack. Balint has been dominant over the past several weeks in conference play, going 4-0 with two saves. Craft was the hard-luck loser on Friday night as she went six and a third innings without giving up a run.
Nevada matched their hit total from Friday night in the first inning as they got three two-out singles, including an RBI single by Jessica Sellers that opened the scoring as the Wolfpack plated one to take an early 1-0 lead. The Aztecs threatened in the bottom of the first with singles by Bella Espinoza and Mac Barbara, but Craft was able to get out of the inning by retiring the next three batters. The Aztecs struck in the bottom of the third, as Nicole Siess opened the inning with a walk, and Espinoza beat out a sacrifice bunt for a base hit. Barbara hit into a fielder’s choice sending Siess to third, and a ground ball by Alexa Shultz brought in the tying run. Craft was able to escape further damage by getting Jessica Cordola to strikeout to end the threat.
The Aztecs threatened again in the bottom of the fourth on a two-out double by AJ Murphy, but Craft was able to induce a deep fly ball out by Siess to keep the game tied at one. Craft was equally as effective as she was Friday night as was able shut down the Aztec hitters through the first five innings on just five base hits. However, she couldn’t hold the Aztecs in the sixth inning as the Aztecs took the lead. Jillian Celis reached base on an error by Nevada second baseman Mia Misasi. Jessica Cordola sacrificed Celis to second base, and Danielle Romanello laced a line drive up the middle to score Celis. AJ Murphy then came up and added to the lead by stroking a single up the middle to score pinch-runner Elianna Reyes as the Aztecs extended their lead to 3-1.
Balint continued her dominant pitching, shutting down the Wolfpack over the next six innings, striking out 13 in the process and only allowing five hits to improve to 12-4 on the season. Balint has become a dominant force this season. When asked how it feels to be a member of a “staff” instead of being the “ace” pitcher as many college pitchers are used to, Balint stated, “that pitching in college is so more emotionally demanding…you just can’t pitch 2 or 3 games in a row anymore.” Balint added that now that technology and film are so much more prevalent in the game, “that batters can see your tendencies, so having the ability to change things up is important,” Balint said. The pitcher was asked how she has adjusted as her role has changed. She added, “When I started at Oregon, I was a closer only. I only had to get three outs. Now, when I get to the fifth inning, I look at it as a nine-out game. And I don’t have to be perfect. We have a great defense behind me.”
Coach Stacey Nuveman-Deniz was asked following the game how it felt to be 9-0 in the conference for the first time in 19 years. She stated that “it feels excellent, but we are not even playing our best ball yet. When we start firing on all cylinders, watch out! We have a lot more left in the tank,” Coach Nuveman-Deniz said confidently. She was also asked how it felt to have such an “abundance of riches” with her four stellar pitchers. She said, “its been a challenge getting everyone enough innings to stay sharp, and we have treated our staff like a baseball team where each pitcher has a role, and when you are able to bring in a pitcher with a different style, it makes it hard on the other team.” When asked how that was handled with the staff, Nuveman-Deniz added, “we have had a lot of conversations, but each pitcher has totally bought in to the process, and we are seeing the results on the field.”
The Aztecs will take their 9-0 conference record and their 11-game winning streak on the road next when they travel to Las Vegas to take on the UNLV Rebels in a key Mountain West matchup. The Rebels are 5-1 in conference play and coming off a three-game sweep of #25 Boise State.