Sam Macken celebrated a second night of heroics with dry humor. The freshman’s clutch hitting, first displayed in the Gophers’ Big Ten championship game, had led to another Gophers postseason victory last Saturday, and she reminded her teammates of it in the locker room.
“[Macken] walked in and said ‘There’s something about me and ending games,’ ” junior Tyler Walker recalled.
Walker and junior Kaitlyn Richardson were amused before telling the Rochester native to pipe down.
The next day Macken did it again.
She hit a three-run home run in the bottom of the sixth inning of last Sunday’s second NCAA regional championship game, putting the Gophers up 8-6 and propelling them to their first-ever Super Regional appearance.
The No. 16-seeded Gophers open a best-of-three series against No. 1 seed and heavily favored Oregon on Saturday night in Eugene. The winner advances to the Women’s College World Series.
“She hits [a game-winner] again, so we have no choice but to agree with her,” Walker said. “She’s so confident in herself, it’s actually inspiring. And she’s so funny; she doesn’t know half of the things she says. She’s been so big for us when it gets tough, though. A lot of our friends are now calling her Sammy ‘Clutch’ Macken, so she’s got a little nickname.”
The nickname came into play after the Big Ten championship game. Gophers coach Jessica Allister said the game film showed Macken, a huge smile on her face, strolling to the plate with two outs in the bottom of the seventh inning, with a runner on base and score tied against top-seeded Michigan.
The count went to one ball and two strikes before the lefthanded hitter singled to the right side for a title-winning walk-off hit. Her first base hit of the weekend claimed the Gophers’ first Big Ten title since 1999.
A week later in the regional semifinals against North Dakota State, Macken sparked a three-run 10th inning with a leadoff double and eventually scored what would be the winning run.
Then on Sunday, her home run finished a comeback against Auburn before a home crowd at Jane Sage Cowles Stadium.
“This is kind of a new thing, actually. [Clutch hits] never really happened for me in high school,” Macken said. “I wouldn’t say there’s any nerves. It’s just another at-bat, one pitch at a time, and it just happens to be in clutch situations. … It felt good. I didn’t think it would happen again, but it did. It’s exciting to see that it came down to that again.”
The more Allister is around Macken, the more the coach senses the freshman enjoys pressure situations. Most players would think too much and overwhelm themselves with the game on the line, Allister said.
Another underclassman who has excelled in challenging situations is lefthanded pitcher Nikki Anderson. She finished off Sunday’s regional championship game with 3⅔ scoreless innings, four strikeouts and no walks after taking over the game trailing 6-2.
Macken called Anderson the Gophers’ secret weapon. Walker refers to her as the ace in their back pocket.
Anderson shut down Auburn’s offense after it knocked around the Gophers’ top two pitchers.
The role players’ success has been important in the Gophers’ postseason run, Allister said.
“When you look at great teams, we talk about how everybody has to contribute and there is going to be a moment when the team needs everybody, and I think Sunday epitomized that,” Allister said. “These are two players that have played huge roles for us but aren’t always the people whose names are in the headlines, and they shone in the moments given to them.”
Allister is returning home, in a sense, this weekend. She spent 2010 as an assistant coach at Oregon and helped lead the Ducks to their first Super Regional appearance. Four years later, she’s helped guide another program to its first Super Regional after taking over a struggling Gophers team.
While the Ducks are favored in the series, Gophers senior pitcher Sara Moulton said the Gophers have been the underdog all year and can’t wait to prove more people wrong.
“I think anyone can step up at any given time, and this past weekend it was all Nikki and all Sam,” said Sara Groenewegen, the Big Ten Pitcher and Freshman of the Year who set high standards for the Gophers’ underclassmen. “It’s nice to have other people have those big opportunities.”