The difference between last season and this year for the MSU softball program boils down to pitching, head coach Jacquie Joseph said.
Last season, the Spartans struggled in the circle and limped their way through a season that saw them go winless in the Big Ten. This season, with the help of a few new arms, MSU (19-13 overall, 5-0 Big Ten) is off to its best conference start since 2006, and remains one of two teams undefeated in league play after Wednesday’s doubleheader sweep of Penn State.
“It’s 100 percent of the difference,” Joseph said of her team’s pitching.
“We have a good team, we have a good program. We just didn’t pitch well enough to win games last year. We were competitive last year, we were tough last year. We had all the elements except pitching, and we’ve got good pitching this year.”
Enter junior Kelly Smith.
The new ace of the Spartans’ pitching staff was a gun for hire after spending last season at McLennan Community College in Waco, Texas, where she posted a 16-10 record with a 1.11 ERA.
Since transferring to MSU this year, Smith has adjusted well to playing in the Big Ten. She is the reigning conference pitcher of the week — the first Spartan to receive the honor since 2006 — and has the third-most strikeouts in the Big Ten to go along with a 14-7record and 2.0 ERA so far in 2013.
“The pitchers actually work the hardest out of all of us … So they deserve to be throwing well,” junior right fielder Sarah Bowlingsaid.
A born and bred Texan, Smith still is getting acclimated to Big Ten weather.
“I definitely loved it when we were in Florida because I love the heat and the humidity, so it’s been a little different I would say,” Smith said with a laugh.
As Smith recorded nine Ks in a complete game win against Penn State in Wednesday’s first game, she did so in temperatures barely more than 40 degrees and a moderate breeze. She’s had to revamp her approach to warming up and staying loose in the Midwest, which means layering on sweaters, jackets and mittens in the dugout along with occasional jogs to stay warm — an unnecessary routine in the Lone Star State.
“Once you’re warm, you’re warm,” Smith said. “It’s a different style because in Texas you could just warm up and then be done for like three innings, then if they needed you again go warm back up, five pitches later you’re ready. So now it just takes a little longer.”
Smith and freshman Dani Goranson (3-5 this season with a 2.53 ERA) have started all but one game for MSU. The duo’s best attribute is that they don’t hurt themselves and make many mistakes, Joseph said.
“They work ahead in the count. They don’t walk anybody. They manage the game. They mix their speeds. They do the things you have to do to be successful,” Joseph said.
Smith wasn’t around for the turmoil of the 2012 season, but she’s well aware of it. She has noticed, though, an uplifting aura throughout the club that she says keeps the Spartans thinking positive.
“From talking to them, basically it’s just a whole different atmosphere that we have here from last year,” Smith said. “We are so, just, confident in ourselves and confident in our abilities. … Honestly I just think it’s been awesome. I think people feel it and feel the energy that we bring. I can’t really ask for more.”
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