Suzanne McGhee knows the margin for error is slim.
Mere percentage points separate her Merced College softball team, Sequoias and Taft atop the Central Valley Conference standings. With two weeks left in the regular season, a slip up could be the difference between a league title and possibly missing the playoffs.
It’s why McGhee was so disappointed in a flat showing from her squad for the opening game of doubleheader with Porterville on Thursday afternoon. The She-Devils bounced back from a 3-2 defeat with a convincing 11-0, five-inning victory in the nightcap, but McGhee feared the damage was done.
“We’ve lost the first game in a number of these doubleheaders because we’re just not coming ready to play,” McGhee said. “We had no energy, no focus, no life in the first game today. I’m glad that we didn’t just roll over and give up two losses, but instead of coming back strong in the second game, we have to come out strong from the beginning.
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“The disappointing part is, if Sequoias doesn’t split with West Hills today and Taft wins two, we go from our spot in first place to possibly third.”
It didn’t work out as badly as McGhee anticipated. Taft (13-4) swept a doubleheader in Fresno to move to first place, a half game ahead of the She-Devils. Sequioas (9-6 CVC) suffered a sweep by West Hills on the road to fall into third place. Only the top two teams are guaranteed a spot in the postseason.
If Merced (19-12, 12-4 CVC) can reproduce the effort it gave in the back end of the doubleheader the rest of the way, McGhee doesn’t see locking up a place in the postseason being an issue.
The She-Devils were the aggressors from the onset of the second game, pounding a number of hard-hit balls on the ground. The Porterville defense was found wanting as the Pirates (11-20, 7-10 CVC) committed six fielding errors under the barrage. MC took full advantage of the extra outs and free base runners, pushing across 11 runs on nine hits.
McGhee’s squad got the action started right away as Arisa Nishibe and Melanie Silva both reached on infield singles to open the first. Both runners moved up on a wild pitch. Nishibe baited the catcher into a throw to third after creeping a little too far down the line, then broke for the plate with a steal of home as soon as the ball was released. An RBI ground out from Brianna Lopez made it 2-0.
A Porterville miscue helped Merced expand the lead in the second. With two outs and the bases loaded, Marta Mitchell hit a ball right back to Pirate pitcher Sophia Chamberlain. The sophomore fired to the plate instead of going to first and threw the ball away.
The She-Devils broke the game open with an eight-run third inning. Thirteen batters came to the plate as MC used five hits to exploit three Porterville errors and a pair of walks. Brianna Flores, Lopez and Elizabeth Cuevas all had run-scoring singles in the rally.
“We have a habit of waiting until the end to get going,” said Jennifer Moreno, who was 2 for 2 with a double and a run. “We’re a little jittery at first, so we just have to make sure we start off real strong and don’t let it die. The second game, we were ready from the first pitch.”
The run support was more than enough for Lopez in the circle. The sophomore shook off one bad inning in the opener to toss a three-hit shutout. She walked two and struck out five for her 11th win of the season.
Lopez’s only blemish on the afternoon came in the fifth inning of the opener as she walked the bases loaded with two outs. All three came around to score on hits by Samantha Dale and Mckenzie Hendricks. Merced College answered with two runs on the bottom half of the inning on a Flores single and Silva double. Despite getting the tying run in scoring position in the fifth, sixth and seventh innings, the She-Devils could never get it tied up.
“It’s one of those mental things where I’m constantly telling them to get up, get some adrenaline going,” McGhee said. “Just get some type of enthusiasm and we don’t. We sit back on our heels and wait for the other team to score before we pick it up. Then we try to turn it on in out last couple at-bats. You can’t do that and be successful.
“We have two weeks left. We’ll see if we can figure it out.”