Maggie Balint enters in a jam and exits as the espnW softball player of the week

Sam Marshall/Oregon Athletics

Before a big-time performance against Florida State, Maggie Balint struggled against Arizona and Oregon State. The problem, she says, was in her head.

Runners on second and third. No outs in extra innings. The reigning ACC player of the year in the batter's box days after she hit a walk-off home run against a previously unbeatable pitcher.

Yes indeed, Oregon pitcher Maggie Balint had the Florida State Seminoles right where she wanted them.

Well, maybe not quite where she, or any pitcher with a self-preservation instinct, would want one of the nation's best teams. But Balint was right where she wanted to be when her coach handed the freshman the ball in relief in the eighth inning.

And that counts for something. Sometimes it counts for a lot.

"I felt like the last couple of weeks I've been struggling," Balint said of her mindset entering the game in such a dicey moment. "And I needed to prove to my team and to myself and to Coach [Mike] White that I can go out there in those big situations going into the postseason.

"When I went out there with runners on, I was so excited to pick up my teammates. I wanted to be out there more than I think I had the last three weeks."

She struck out Alex Powers, the hero of Florida State's win against Florida ace Kelly Barnhill earlier in the week, in a seven-pitch battle. Balint then retired the next two batters. Oregon escaped the inning unscathed. After she struck out the side in the top of the ninth, the Ducks walked off with a win and a sweep in the bottom of the inning.

All of that a day after Balint led the Ducks to a series-clinching win with a three-hitter in the second game of the high-profile encounter, pitching from a deficit but keeping the Seminoles in check until her team broke through in the sixth inning for all three runs in a 3-1 win.

Her modest workload magnified by the caliber of the opponent and the pressure of the circumstances, Balint did plenty in nine innings to earn espnW softball player of the week honors.

Not bad for someone who, at least in her own mind, was ill-equipped for such a high-wire stroll when the week began.

On paper, mind you, she looked the perfect candidate. Both starter and closer for the Ducks, Balint's 19-3 record and 1.13 ERA were earned across 15 starts and 12 relief appearances. Balint wasn't sure about the relief work when she arrived at Oregon. She was, by her own admission, a bad closer when asked to fill that role in travel ball. And when White kept using her in relief early in her time in Eugene, she took it a bit personally, worried that it meant the coach didn't think much of her, unlikely as that may have been for a player ranked among the nation's top five recruits by some analysts. She earned similar late-inning relief wins against Arizona State and BYU, both ranked at the time, and a win in longer relief against ranked Kentucky.

On a staff with three good arms, she is an entirely modern asset, easily deployable from the get-go, as Saturday demonstrated, or to finish the job, like she did on Sunday. Balint suggested she may even enjoy the latter more.

I think I just needed to find my why -- why I'm here at the University of Oregon and why I wanted to be on the mound.
Maggie Balint

But Balint was an unlikely choice this particular week because it began with her in such a bad place mentally. A week earlier, she walked six in her lone short stint in a series against Oregon State. The week before that she lasted just an inning in her only appearance against Arizona.

"I've been having some issues in my head," Balint said. "It kind of gets to that part of the season when you're tired, you've got a lot going on and everything kind of hits you at once. I know I was super upset for a couple of weeks. I just could not figure out what was going on with me. ... I was completely in my head. I took everything way too personal everyone was saying to me. I was having meltdowns. Everything that could go wrong, went wrong."

A well-timed visit from her mom during the week, including a bullpen session, offered relief of a different sort. She was reminded that softball was supposed to be fun. She was reminded she knew how to pitch. So it was that she found herself enjoying the challenge Sunday, worrying less about Powers or any other hitter than getting ahead in the count and getting an extra mile or two per hour on her rise ball.

Ranked sixth by the NCAA selection committee for the body of work prior to the Florida State series, Oregon's sweep of the team ranked second all but ensures the Ducks won't have to leave home to reach the Women's College World Series. Home is where they want to be, including the rare Pac-12 Pennsylvanian who wasn't entirely sure where to place Oregon on the map when offered the chance to pitch in the Pacific Northwest.

"This is why I'm here," Balint said of her realization before the Florida State series. "I think I just needed to find my why -- why I'm here at the University of Oregon and why I wanted to be on the mound."

If that comes with runners on base and an All-American at the plate, well, all the more fun.

Previous winners:  Boston College's Tatiana Cortez (May 3) |  Arizona's Katiyana Mauga (April 26) | Florida's Kelly Barnhill (April 19) | Texas State's Randi Rupp (April 12) | Ohio State's Emily Clark (April 5) | Arizona's Danielle O'Toole (March 29) | Cal Poly's Sierra Hyland (March 22) | Syracuse's Sydney O'Hara (March 15) | Arkansas' Nicole Schroeder (March 8) | Texas A&M's Samantha Show (March 1) | LSU's Bailey Landry (Feb. 22) | Washington's Taran Alvelo (Feb. 15)

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