SOUTH CHINA — This early in the softball season, pitchers are the ones most likely to submit a superior performance. Most pitchers practice in the offseason, and the long winter kept the hitters and fielders from getting up to speed.
Then there’s Gardiner junior Kristal Smith. On Wednesday afternoon against Erskine, Smith was dominant in the circle and at the plate. Smith pitched a one-hitter with eight strikeouts and also went 3 for 4 at the plate with a home run and six RBI as the Tigers cruised to a 16-0 victory in the season opener for both teams.
Lilly Chepke also had two hits for Gardiner. The game was shortened to five innings by the 12-run rule.
Through four innings, Smith allowed just two baserunners — a walk by Stephanie Doe in the second and a hit batsman by Emma Robertson in the fourth. Smith got a strikeout to open the fifth, but Megan Dunn worked an eight-pitch at bat before lining a clean single to left-center field for Erskine’s only hit of the game.
That was the last baserunner for the Eagles. While Erskine committed eight errors on the day, Gardiner had none.
“Having backup behind me is always helpful,” Smith said. “The team does a lot, too. It’s not just me. I feel pretty confident, especially with the awesome defense that I have behind me.”
Gardiner loaded the bases on two errors and a hit batsman in the top of the first. Erskine pitcher Mallory Chamberlain struck out the 4-5 hitters and nearly got out of the inning, but a pitch that got away and a two-out, two-run error put Gardiner on top, 3-0.
The Tigers scored two more in the third, then struck for 11 runs in the fifth as Erskine struggled defensively. Ahead 14-0 with two out, the Tigers worked a delayed double steal with Morgan Carver and Brittany Rollins for another run. Erskine coach Holly Tripp thought that with some time and confidence, the Eagles would get out of an inning like that with less damage in the future.
“The battery’s young, and I think they can pull themselves up by their bootstraps to a point, but they don’t have enough innings to know that they can really get through this stuff,” Tripp said. “We’re feeling ourselves out right now.”
The highlight of the inning was Smith’s home run, which cleared the fence in left-center. It came with Carver and Rollins on base and made the score 10-0.
“My dad actually told me to move up on the plate,” Smith said. “I wasn’t trying to hit a home run or anything, but it just happened. That’s my first over-the-fence home run. I didn’t think it went over the fence at first, and then everyone was like, âGo! Go!'”
The Eagles made the Eastern A playoffs last season and are back in Class A this spring, but they’re also young. Erskine started five sophomores and a freshman on Wednesday.
“I hope, at this point, they know exactly what they need to do to be successful,” Tripp said. “I told them to go home and think of three skills they need to improve on, and we’ll talk about it (Thursday) in practice. I think everybody needs to know how to be confident.”