Once a strength; defense being tested for Saluki softball

By Sean Carley, @SCarleyDE

After smoothly sailing through the first half of the season, one of SIU softball’s greatest strengths have hit some rough waters.

Over the last nine games, SIU has committed 12 errors, which coach Kerri Blaylock said has cost the team some wins.

The Salukis committed three errors in the nightcap of the April 19 doubleheader to Evansville, a 3-2 loss that put SIU on a three-game losing skid.

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“Without [the errors] we win that game 2-0,” Blaylock said after the game. “It was about the errors. We have pitched well enough to win the last three ball games.”

Before the rough patch, on April 11, the Salukis had the 16th-best fielding percentage in Division I (.974). Ten days — and 11 errors — later, they stood at 43rd (.969).

“There’s going to be times where we hit road blocks,” said senior shortstop Kelsey Gonzalez. “Especially when we get into conference play, a lot of teams are going to try a lot of things on our pitching because they can’t hit it very hard.”

April 16 against Indiana State, the Sycamores bunted nine times and the Salukis committed four errors in the contest.

SIU’s pitching has tried to make up for the defensive errors themselves. In those same 10 days, Saluki pitchers have allowed just three earned runs across 43 innings.

The pitchers are not exempt from fielding — some hurlers have contributed to their own demise. Freshman Brianna Jones committed two of the errors in the six games.

The team went 2-4 in that span, three of those losses were by one run.

“The last couple games have kind of showed us that one more play on defense, we probably win that game even if our offense hasn’t been producing as many runs,” Gonzalez said.

In those six games, SIU scored 2.1 runs per game, nearly three runs less than its average before that time.

Blaylock said the team’s offensive struggles may have translated over to the defense.

“Our lack of hitting began to affect our defense,” Blaylock said. “We’re such a young team, I thought we might have a period during the year where there may be a struggle here or there, but they’re very receptive and work very hard at it.”

The youth of the team also plays a part in the learning curve, Blaylock said. SIU routinely has freshmen or sophomores at five of the nine positions in any game.

The opponents during the recent stretch, Indiana State and Evansville, both played a brand of small ball by keeping the ball in the park and forcing fielders to make plays. 

Because these strategies require infielders to be on top of their game, junior first baseman Shaye Harre said the team has to be ready when they play those types of teams.

“There’s going to be times where we make mistakes and that’s OK,” Gonzalez said. “When we make a mistake, the next person that gets that ball makes the play and that shuts it down so one error doesn’t turn into two or three.”

Over the last couple of weeks, Blaylock has devoted large portions of practice towards situational defense.

Harre said these defense sessions take up a good majority of practice.

“The slapping, the bunting, all those moving runners creates a lot of confusion,” Blaylock said. “We’re trying to create enough confusion in practice, so the game seems kind of normal.”

The intense devotion seemed to have worked.

This past weekend, SIU committed one error across a three-game set at Bradley. The Salukis won all three games for their first sweep on the road this season.

“We’re just trying to grit it out and play defense confidently like we were in the beginning of the season,” Gonzalez said.

Sean Carley can be reached at [email protected] or at 618-536-3307.

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