By Doug Brenneman, JOURNAL Sports
In the game of softball, a pitcher can make a huge difference, especially if that pitcher also drives in the first runs of a game while tossing a shutout.
Molly Sparks pitched and hit the Washington High School softball team to a 3-0 nonconference victory over Iowa City Regina, the defending Class 2A state champions, Tuesday in Washington.
Sparks sparkled in the circle by not allowing a single walk. She struck out five and gave up just three hits.
Sparks said her pitching has improved over the course of the season.
?I think my confidence has been more up now at this point in the season because we started getting some more wins,? she said. ?I have been throwing more inside and out and using spin pitches. That has really helped me a lot. This year is the first year that I have used a two-seam pitch. That way it looks like it is going to hit the batter, but it curves away from them.?
The game was a welcome win after the Demons had lost two games in Keokuk Monday.
?This was a testament to our girls,? Washington coach Ben Obermann said. ?It was a new day, new game, new opponent. They left the past in the past. They focused on the present and that?s what we have to do. We cannot fix what we did yesterday, so we just focused on today.?
The focus was evident after a shaky first inning. The first Regina batter reached on an error, then stole second. A groundout advanced her to third base. A hit batter then stole second. With two on and one out, Regina?s cleanup batter sent a shot up the middle that Washington shortstop Morgan Brinning attempted to make a play on and was plowed into by the Regina runner on second, who was then called out for interference. The runner who had scored was sent back to third. A pop up to Kaitlyn Mitchell ended the inning.
?Morgan is a tough kid,? Obermann said. ?It is going to take something serious to pull her from a game. That was a big play in the ballgame. If we don?t get that call, they get a run and we?re not out of it the inning. Molly buckled down from there and they did not have another scoring opportunity all night.?
Well, except for when there was a leadoff double by Regina in the fourth inning that reached the fence in the air but three consecutive outs snuffed that threat. It was just the second hit Sparks allowed.
?Molly really focused and battled back and left her set right there,? Obermann said.
Sparks got two strikeouts and a fly out in the fifth inning.
An error let a baserunner on the sixth, but a spectacular shoestring catch by the charging center fielder Kinsey Duwa ended that threat.
?She gets a good jump on the ball and she is still kind of in spring training as she adjusts to coming back from her injury,? Obermann said. ?I don?t think she has all of her speed back but she makes up for that because she gets such a good jump on the ball.?
In the bottom of the sixth inning, Mitchell drew a lead-off walk and Megan Mitchell reached on an error. Sparks was up next and stepped into the batter?s box with regret about her previous at-bat and determination to fix it.
?I had struck out in my second at-bat and I knew we needed to get some runs in, so I tried to make her pitch a little bit,? Sparks said. ?That worked because she ended up pitching one right down the middle for me to place it out in center. It felt great.?
The double scored two runs. Sparks was sacrificed to third, then Coach called one of the most exciting plays in the game of softball -- a suicide sqeeze.
?In three or four years, I think that is the first suicide squeeze we have actually executed correctly,? Obermann said. ?We got the bunt down, Molly got a good break on it, but give Regina credit, they made a great play.?
Regina pitcher Katie Bracken used her glove to field Haylee Wilson?s bunt and toss it to the catcher, who tagged Sparks a millisecond before she got to the plate for the out.
?It was just a bang-bang play and there is nothing you can do,? Obermann said.
Wilson reached first on the play, advanced on Duwa?s single and scored on Kellie Dallmeyer?s single for the 3-0 lead.
In the seventh, a leadoff Regina single was eliminated when she tried to stretch it to a double. A ground out and a pop out ended the game.
?Tonight, we played more like the team that we have been the past couple weeks,? Obermann said. ?This was one of the better pitchers we will see. I thought tonight felt like a tournament-like atmosphere. That?s what we want at the end of the season.?
The Demons return to Southeast Conference play Thursday, hosting Mount Pleasant.