Softball: Fresno State softball relies on healthy offense

The formula is simple: if the Fresno State softball team throws shutouts, it will win games.

That’s something that the Bulldogs’ head coach Trisha Ford has instilled in them. Her team chuckles when she says it, but last weekend, the New Mexico Lobos fell victim to two shutouts, one that ended early under the mercy rule.

The two road victories helped the Bulldogs get closer to .500 in away games. Whereas Fresno State has struggled when away from Bulldog Diamond, it may have found its sweet spot: familiarity with the game plan.

The Bulldogs are getting more comfortable. It’s Ford’s second season as head coach of the team, and her players are becoming accustomed to her strategy.

“This is only their second year with us,” Ford said, “so even though they’re seniors and they have that savviness of the game, they’re only sophomores in the system.”

A windy affair in New Mexico

The gusts came into the Lobo Softball Field at an average of 20 mph. But with the ‘Dogs’ offensive strategy – try to hit just line drives and ground balls – that was not a problem.

Friday’s 11-9 loss to the Lobos was just an anomaly. The Bulldogs allowed 11 runs (10 of which were earned) and had home runs off the bats of first baseman Stesha Brazil and third baseman Vonnie Martin. New Mexico scored twice in the bottom of the eighth inning to snatch the game away from the ‘Dogs.

After that, everything went in Fresno State’s favor.

The Bulldogs scored 29 unanswered runs with no home runs. It started with a 4-run first inning on Saturday, when sophomore second baseman Whitney Smith and freshman left fielder Kierra Willis smacked in a pair of 2-run singles.

The Bulldogs scored five more runs – a 3-run double from Smith, one from Moss and a single from shortstop Brooke Ortiz that scored Moss from first base.

Pitcher Hannah Harris tossed seven 2-hit innings to avenge her loss in the previous game.

On Sunday, the run production did not stop. Fresno State scored 20 runs and again held the Lobos to two hits to get the 5-inning, mercy-rule victory.

“When our kids are in the box,” Ford said, “it’s one pitch at a time. You either win the pitch or you lose it. As the season has progressed, they’ve bought more fully into the approach.
“It’s hard when you first start, and you are overwhelmed. You have some failures and successes, and [the team] is starting to really see that coming together.”

Kierra in the clutch

During the weekend series against New Mexico, Willis hit .700 with four RBIs and a .750 on-base percentage. And that all was done with zero strikeouts.

“She hates striking out,” Ford said. “She will battle until she gets the ball to put in play.”

After the productive series, the freshman moved up to first on the team in hitting in conference contests.

“I was confident with myself,” Willis said, “and I just went out there to have fun and put the ball in play. I focused on what Coach tells me and just kept my hands in for the ball [at the plate].”

And all Willis needed, Ford said, was a little TLC.

“She needed to get somewhere where she was getting consistent coaching from the same people over and over,” Ford said. “I think she’s really starting to hit her stride.

“She’s fun to watch.”

Looking ahead

The first-place San Diego State Aztecs come to town this weekend for a 3-game set that begins Friday night. The Bulldogs – who share second place with San Jose State and UNLV – look to take the lead in the standings.

And to do that, they will need to win two of the three games.

The Aztecs have a healthy offensive lineup coming into the series. Senior outfielder Patrice Jackson is hitting .387 with 13 home runs and 37 RBIs, ballooning her slugging percentage to .892.

Freshman Sydnee Cable is leading the team with a .404 batting average. Although she has no home runs, she does have 22 RBIs, second on the team behind Jackson.

“They have a balanced attack,” Ford said, “but nothing that, if we take care of the things we need to take care of, we can’t get over.”

Sophomore pitcher Danielle O’Toole has a 1.48 ERA with a 20-4 record. In conference contests, she is 3-1 and allows an average of 2.84 runs per game.

But for now, the Bulldogs are focused on themselves. With only four hits allowed last weekend, they have emphasized their pitching prowess.

Now, it’s all about “passing the bat.” No matter what happens at the plate, whether it is a home run or a walk, as long as a Bulldog gets on base, there is trust in the team to bring her home.

“[The New Mexico games were] a good example of how we don’t need to hit the longball to score 20 runs,” Ford said. “You need to keep passing the bat and having good at-bats.”