I hate to say I told you so. I really do. But unfortunately, Pacific Lutheran handed the Linfield softball team two more home losses and broke an eight-year streak of Northwest Conference titles. In both cases, PLU’s pitching unit was just too much for the ’Cats to overcome. Just as I wrote about last week, we seem to be unable to beat them at home.
I was informed of the first defeat Saturday night by a friend of mine, Walt Haight, husband of Linfield professor Dawn Graff-Haight. I shook my head, saying, Well, I guess I’ve got my column for tomorrow. PLU has just got its number this season. Walt looked at me and, with a grin, asked, why? Why do they have their number? Is it pitching? Hitting? I couldn’t answer. There’s your angle, he told me.
Well Walt, when you’re right you’re right. I looked at the box scores of all three defeats and it took time to find any consistent pattern. In the first PLU loss this season, the Lutes piled it on
early and then late to out-score the ‘Cats. In the second, it took until the seventh-inning for PLU to find a six-run outburst to bury Linfield. This time, two close games came down to the final inning and Catball just couldn’t come from behind a 3-0 deficit late.
I’ll admit that I’m not the best at reading softball box scores, but I did eventually manage to find my answer for Walt. In three losses to PLU before Sunday, the ’Cats were averaging 3.3 errors per game opposed to their overall season average of 0.7. That’s a staggering 2.6 errors more against one opponent! And in the NWC match on Saturday, all three of the Lutes’ runs were scored on Linfield errors.
It’s clear to me now that the answer to Linfield’s PLU struggles is 100 percent in the mind. The Lutes have gotten into Catball’s head and shaken the mental toughness that was so key in last season’s championship run. The grit, the focus, the mental fortitude has been rattled by a pair of come-from-behind home losses to a dangerous team in March.
What I saw from PLU this weekend was swagger. They oozed confidence and looked like they were salivating at a chance to send the ’Cats packing in their own house. It looked familiar; it looked like us last season. And they rode that confidence straight to the house for a 3-1 record against Linfield in the NWC tourney.
Here’s the thing though. Sandwiched between these two heartbreaking PLU losses were two impressive wins. A tough 4-2 victory over Willamette was followed by a cardiac-inducing, come-from-behind thriller over the Lutes in which Catball scored the tying and winning runs on their last out in the bottom of the seventh.
When I got to the field at the bottom of the sixth, you could have heard a pin drop in Del Smith Stadium. It was utterly lifeless in the dugout and stands, at least among those wearing purple. It was the first time I’d ever seen this team truly scared.
But by the end of the game, a complete change had come over the Wildcats. They were scrapping, fighting and struggling with every ounce of their ability. The focus was back. The mental toughness, the grit, was back, and the result was a victory for the ages. Sadly, it didn’t take more than two hours for PLU’s bullpen to pitch it back into submission.
Honestly, this loss doesn’t really matter in the scope of a playoff bid. They may have lost the NWC and this may hurt like hell, but they’re going, and that really hasn’t ever been in question. But if this loaded team with title aspirations wants to hoist the D-III title trophy for a second year in a row, they’re going to need to find that mental toughness and focus from last year and hold onto it for dear life. Catch the seventh inning of Sunday’s first PLU game in a bottle and drink it before every contest. Otherwise, it’s going to be a short post-season for Catball this spring.
Chris Forrer/Sports columnist
Chris Forrer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.