In the bottom of the final inning of a win-or-go-home game, the tying run was on first and the winning run was at the plate. The Binghamton University softball team needed just one more strike from then-freshman pitcher Chelsea Howard to turn a one-run lead into a victory and extend its run in the 2018 America East Softball Championship. The rising tension before Howard’s next pitch built a dramatic scene perfect for Hollywood; however, the ending of the game was far from perfect for the Bearcats, as Maine then-junior third baseman Alyssa Derrick crushed Howard’s offering over the center field wall, ending Binghamton’s 2018 season.
One year later, Howard and the rest of the Bearcats (17-27, 6-12 America East) have a chance to rewrite the script as they get ready for this year’s AE Championships, beginning May 8 in West Hartford, Connecticut. BU head coach Michelle Johnston said she doesn’t think last year’s heartbreak will be on her squad’s mind.
“I think we [have] kind of forgotten about last year,” Johnston said. “This is obviously a different team, and I don’t think [last year’s ending] will play any part as far as the tournament goes.”
What will be on their mind, though, is the status of junior pitcher Rayn Gibson’s injured wrist. Gibson went 7-10 with a 4.26 ERA this season in 93.2 innings pitched and has not seen game action since April 14 against UMass Lowell. According to Johnston, Gibson will be getting X-rays on Monday, and the coach hasn’t ruled out the possibility of Gibson returning to the mound during the tournament.
“There is a slight possibility [Gibson] will be back, but we’re going to be prepared to have her or to not have her,” Johnston said.
Whether Gibson returns or not, BU will look to Howard and freshman pitcher Morgan Bienkowski to continue their strong pitching into the tournament.
“We’ve been really happy with [Bienkowski],” Johnston said. “She has stepped up, and I really like what she’s been giving us these past couple of weeks. I thought [Howard] threw a really good game this past weekend. I definitely feel like our other pitchers are stepping up with [Gibson] being out.”
On Tuesday, Bienkowski was named the America East Softball Rookie of the Week after posting a 0.60 ERA in two starts. The freshman tossed a complete game shutout against Maine and didn’t surrender a run in 4.2 innings against reigning AE champion Albany. Meanwhile, Howard picked up the win in her last start by shutting out Maine in five innings while collecting five punch-outs.
Johnston said that she hopes her two young pitchers have learned from their experiences this season and will remain composed after an error or big hit occurs. BU’s lineup can be potent enough at times to overcome any miscue or rally by the opposition. The lineup is led by the power of sophomore infielder Makayla Alvarez, the run production from junior catcher Sara Herskowitz and the speed of freshman infielder Marissa Braito. Alvarez’s nine home runs and Herskowitz’s 34 RBIs are team highs.
“In the second half this season, Sara has really gotten comfortable and she’s feeling good at the plate,” Johnston said. “I think other teams are respecting that.”
Johnston later said Braito was the tone-setter of the offense and referred to her presence as a stolen base threat. Braito is hitting .326 with 30 runs scored and has stolen 15 bases in 20 attempts this season.
“[Braito] has done a good job all year in the lead-off spot,” Johnston said. “She’s been working to get on base and we just want her to continue to do that.”
As the sixth seed, BU enters the tournament in a less than ideal situation, and Johnston said the team does not feel overly comfortable in the tournament because of the threat of facing the top two seeds, No. 1 UMass Lowell and No. 2 Albany, who will have byes to begin the tournament. Albany has won the championship two years in a row, but nevertheless, Johnston doesn’t seem scared by any opponent.
“We know that if we play our best game against those guys, then they’re beatable,” Johnston said. “Our mindset is that if we go out and play our best game, then we can win this.”
The tournament kicks off on Wednesday, May 8 with No. 4 UMBC facing No. 5 Hartford at 11 a.m. and the Bearcats taking on No. 3 Stony Brook at 1:30 p.m. The two winning teams advance to the second day, and the two losing teams will play an elimination game at 4 p.m.