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'Cats, Trojans try to keep pace with Marian

HI-FIVE: IWU’s Miranda Wehrle slaps hands with coach Steve Babinski in the fifth inning ofthe Wildcats’ 11-8 win in game one of a doubleheader Tuesday in Upland. Wehrle had a home run and double and drove in three to lead the IWU offense. Taylor rebounded to win the nightcap, 6-1.

By CHUCK LANDIS - clandis@chronicle-tribune.com

UPLAND — Taylor University softball Erin Kotlarz couldn’t fault the offensive production Tuesday afternoon, and still it wasn’t enough to end the Trojans’ slump.

“I had a lot of confidence in our hitters today,” Kotlarz said after Taylor was outscored 11-8 by Indiana Wesleyan in the opener of a Crossroads League doubleheader. “Our hitters did great and had a great approach, but we couldn’t come out on top.”

Faulty defense was what hurt the Trojans in dropping their third-straight to IWU this season at Gudakunst Field. But they would come back to win the second game 6-1 and gain a split of the doubleheader.

So Taylor and IWU remained tied for second place in the Crossroads League at 15-5 and both lost another game on leader Marian (34-0, 22-0), one of two remaining undefeated teams in NAIA. The Trojans had been losers in five of seven previous games before winning the nightcap.

Time may be running out to catch Marian in the regular season with 16 league games remaining for both the Trojans and ‘Cats. Yet, the postseason tournament from May 1-3 will give both teams a further chance to qualify for the NAIA World Series.

“We always want to position ourselves for a good spot in the postseason, and we need to be able to come back after these losses and get a win,” Kotlarz said.

IWU is ranked 11th nationally and improved to 30-10 overall with the split, the fifth straight year with 30 or more wins. The ‘Cats had advanced to the NAIA World Series the past two years and made five straight trips to the national tournament.

The Crossroads League has sent three teams to the national tournament in three of the past four years. Marian, IWU and Taylor (23-9) have separated themselves from the rest of the Crossroads League teams and each has a good chance to gain invitations this time.

“That’s been the goal,” IWU coach Steve Babinski said. “Every game we play is the most important game of the season and we’ll let the chips fall where they might. But we can only control the game we’re in right now.”

In the nightcap, Taylor starting pitcher Lauren Kanai with seventh-inning help from Maddi Evans were able to subdue an IWU offense that has averaged 6.71 runs a game and a .325 batting average. Kanai (9-2) gave up six hits and struck out four over six innings, and then former Madison-Grant standout Evans finished with a perfect seventh that included a strikeout.

The opener, though, belonged to the offenses and the Trojans actually out-hit the Wildcats, 15-12. Yet, three credited Taylor errors led to three unearned runs and put additional pressure on an overtaxed pitching staff.

“I don’t know if it was necessarily our pitching,” Kotlarz said after using three pitchers and bringing starter Jessica Doctor back in to finish. “Our defense wasn’t there today. I think (scorekeepers) were generous with the three errors that were up on the board. I think we had a couple more errors.

“Our pitching did well. It was our defense that wasn’t there for us,” she added.

In the seventh, Taylor shortstop Kristin Mihalic booted a ground ball that would have been the third out and it led to three IWU runs. The misplay became even more glaring when the Trojans scored twice in the bottom of the inning and would have tied the game.

Yet, the Wildcats offense took advantage of every scoring opportunity and scored in every inning but the first. Freshman catcher Miranda Wehrle was especially clutch with a two-run home run with two outs in the third that put the ‘Cats on top 3-2, and she came back with an RBI double in the fifth that tied it 5-all.

Wehrle’s homer to dead centerfield didn’t appear hard hit but was well struck and was her team-leading 12th of the season. She has helped fill the void after NAIA All-American Kristen Exposito’s graduation (23 homers last year), and the ‘Cats as a team have hit 35 homers this season.

“I kind of knew it when it went off the bat, Yessss!,” Wehrle said of her homer. “... The team did really well today hitting and we really executed to score the runs.”

Wehrle entered Game 1 batting .384 that was one percentage point behind Trinity Medina and has now driven in 47 runs in her first collegiate season.

“Nobody takes the place of Kristen Exposito,” Babinski said, “but (Wehrle’s) doing a phenomenal job and coming through in the clutch.”

Mackenzie Brown’s single later in the fifth put IWU ahead to stay, 6-5, and then Victoria Boyer coaxed a bases loaded walk and extend the advantage to two runs. Brown finished with three hits to lead the IWU attack.

Addie Benham and Kira Madl hit doubles for IWU in the opener, and Benham, Miranda and Wehrle each collected two hits. Benham also backed up starting pitcher McKenzey Ridge (20-7) with three solid relief innings.

Taylor Wilson was 5-for-5 with two RBIs to lead Taylor in the opener while Mihalic was 4-for-4 and Evans had two hits.

In the second game, Kanai was 2-for-3 with two RBIs to back up her own pitching, while Mihalic was 2-for-4 and they accounted for half of the Trojans’ eight hits.

Benham and Brown each had two hits for IWU, but the rest of the team could muster only two hits between them.

Indiana Wesleyan plays a doubleheader Thursday at Grace College.

Taylor travels to Spring Arbor (Mich.) for a Friday doubleheader.