Chelsea Evans could sense the direction the game was headed.
The Merced softball team’s potent offense – her bat included – lacked its usual punch thanks to a strong outing from Atwater’s Grace Santistevan. It meant runs were going to be at a premium and the Merced senior needed to bear down in the circle.
Evans did just that, retiring 14 of the last 15 batters she faced and not allowing a hit after the third inning as the Bears remained undefeated in the Central California Conference with a 4-1 victory over Atwater.
“I knew we were struggling a bit offensively, myself included,” Evans said. “The best thing I could do for my team was focus in defensively.
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“Offense comes and goes. That’s softball. It’s good for us to have to win some games by riding our pitching and defense.”
The Bears (9-1, 4-0 CCC) were forced to do both as the Falcons (3-4, 2-2 CCC) turned in one of their best outings of the season.
Atwater coach Lori Kale said her young lineup benefited from a more aggressive approach at the plate against Evans than it had shown to start league play. It helped create the game’s first good chance in the bottom of the second.
A walk, an error and a Maritza Iglesia single loaded the bases for the Falcons with one out. Evans battled back, however, getting a strikeout and a a weak comebacker to escape the inning unscathed.
Merced rode the momentum swing to the game’s first runs in the next half inning. A Lauren Coonce double got things started, and she came home to score on a Rheanne Lewis fielder’s choice. Evans brought Lewis home with a sacrifice fly and the Bears led 2-0.
Atwater had an answer of its own in the bottom of the third.
Haley Lawrence opened the inning with a single. She’d score on a Santistevan RBI double to cut the lead to 2-1. It was as close as the Falcons would get.
Evans was nearly perfect after that, with a seventh-inning error providing the only Falcon base runner the rest of the way. The senior allowed one run on four hits with five strikeouts.
“Chelsea was good,” Merced coach Bart McAfee said. “She made some quick adjustments, and we played some really good defense behind her.
“We made some mistakes. It wasn’t our best game, but those are the games you need to find a way to win and we did.”
The Bears finally created some cushion in the top of the sixth inning.
Madilyn Nickles got the rally started with a leadoff double. A Megan Kravec single put runners on the corners with one out.
Marissa Castillo plated Nickles with a fielder’s choice and Shelbee Ward tacked on a big insurance run with a run-scoring single.
“We did a good job of keeping it close and hanging around,” Kale said. “I feel like our pitching and defense is right there.
“If we can get a few more of those balls we put in play to drop, we’re going to be in good shape.”