LINCOLN — First baseman Mattie Fowler punched a single to right field Friday to give Nebraska the game-winning run in the bottom of the sixth inning, sending the Huskers past Purdue 3-2 and into the semifinals of their first Big Ten softball tournament.
“I’ve nicknamed her Mattie ‘Clutch’ Fowler,” said NU coach Rhonda Revelle, calling attention to the sophomore’s reputation for coming through in late innings. “I’m very comfortable with her in those situations.”
Husker players said the home crowd of 1,518 gave them energy for the finish. As the sixth-inning rally developed, chants of “Go Big Red” were prominent.
Tatum Edwards, the Big Ten pitcher of the year, then shut down Purdue with one base runner in the top of the seventh to preserve the win. NU also notched its 11th 40-win season.
It was the 11th time this season that the Huskers have won in their final at-bat.
Nebraska will take its 40-12 record and No. 14 national ranking into Saturday’s 4:30 p.m. semifinal at Bowlin Field against Minnesota, a 4-0 winner Friday against Penn State.
The game will follow a 2 p.m. semifinal game between top-seeded Michigan and fourth-seeded Wisconsin. The winners will play at noon Sunday for the championship.
Edwards had a battle on her hands from the start, when Purdue loaded the bases in each of the first two innings. All totaled, she pitched to five batters with the bases loaded, walking two for the Boilermakers’ first two runs in the first and getting outs on the other three occasions.
“Everybody was a little nervous — including me,” Edwards said.
She credited her twin sister — Taylor, the catcher — with talking her through the tough spots. The Edwardses were recently selected unanimously to the All-Big Ten first team.
The Huskers were in danger of giving up a bundle in the first inning, but avoided disaster by forcing two runners out at the plate. Purdue’s speedy Andie Varsho opened the game by drawing a walk on a 3-2 count and advancing to third on punch singles by Lindsey Rains and Ashley Burkhardt.
Varsho, the league’s leading base stealer, was then forced out at home on a ground ball to shortstop Alicia Armstrong, leaving one out and three runners on. The next two hitters drew walks to give Purdue the first runs of the game.
The Huskers’ second force out at home came when a high pitch got away from catcher Taylor Edwards, who quickly retrieved the ball and tossed it back to her sister, Tatum, who was covering and tagged the runner out.
“That first inning seemed like it lasted for two hours,” Tatum Edwards said.
Pitcher Edwards, also the lead-off hitter, opened the Huskers’ first with a double to the wall in the left-field corner. With two out, Edwards scored when Brooke Thomason rifled a liner to the wall in deep right field for another double.
The score remained 2-1 for the Boilermakers until NU’s half of the sixth inning.
Edwards again walked two batters in the second inning, putting runners on first and second with two out. The second pitch to the next batter had Revelle halfway to the plate complaining: “What was wrong with that pitch?”
Another punch single by Rains again loaded the bases. A strikeout by Edwards provided the second out and a high fly to center accounted for the third.
After the early first-inning scoring, neither team could put two hits together in any inning until the Nebraska sixth.
Edwards walked Purdue’s bottom two hitters to open the top of the sixth inning, but an on-target throw from center fielder Jordan Bettiol cut down Erika Petruzzi at home to thwart one run. Edwards struck out two to get NU out of the inning.
Nebraska and Purdue had at least one runner in every inning except one.
The Huskers’ sixth-inning break came when clean-up hitter Thomason lined a single off the arm of Purdue pitcher Lexy Moore. A sacrifice bunt from Courtney Breault put Thomason in scoring position, setting the stage for Hailey Decker’s run-scoring single to left field.
Fowler then delivered her game-winning hit, a lazy single over the head of the first baseman into right field.
“We had really good at-bats in that inning,” Revelle said. “We have great staying power.”
Purdue (23-32) ........................... 200 000 0—2 6 0
Nebraska (40-12) ........................... 100 002 x—3 9 2
W: Tat. Edwards, 26-8. L: Moore, 11-15. 2B: NU, Tat. Edwards (9), Thomason (11).
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