espnW Softball Player Of The Week: Minnesota's Sara Groenewegen

Minnesota's Sara Groenewegen struck out 47 in three starts this past week, and also hit two home runs at the plate. Courtesy Minnesota

One of the best run producers in the Big Ten this season, ranked among the conference leaders in slugging and on-base percentages, Minnesota sophomore Sara Groenewegen has a simple plan should she step to the plate against espnW's newest player of the week -- namely, herself.

"My approach would just be to have confidence, see a strike and hit it," Groenewegen said of the encounter.

As the rest of the league can attest, it's a little more difficult than that. There are plenty of strikes to see, sure, but the inability to make contact with any of them when batting against one of the nation's most prolific strikeout pitchers makes confidence tricky to maintain.

So would Groenewegen get the better of this pitcher if the two squared off in the entirely hypothetical showdown? We'll never know. At least not without some rapid advancements in cloning.

In five games this past week, three wins against Purdue and two wins against Wisconsin, Groenewegen hit .500 (7-for-14), including two home runs and a double, walked three times to push her on-base percentage over .600 and scored four runs for the Gophers.

The last of those numbers is notable because it's the same total that the Badgers and Boilermakers managed while hitting against Groenewegen, who is also Minnesota's ace.

The Big Ten leader this season in wins, strikeouts and lowest opponent's batting average, she started three games this past week, allowed three earned runs on nine hits and struck out 47 batters in 22 innings. That included an eight-inning complete game in which she struck out 19 and one of the seven-inning variety in which she struck out 15.

While the quintet of wins wasn't enough to secure the Big Ten championship, as Minnesota fell a game short of Michigan, Groenewegen's exploits were more than enough to earn her our national player of the week award, the second Gophers player so honored this season.

That she had twice the opportunity to impress is to her credit.

College softball has a tradition of pitchers who help their own cause at the plate (and sometimes at other positions in the field). Names like Lisa Fernandez, Jennie Finch, Keilani Ricketts and Michele Smith are merely some of the most famous on a long list. But whether it is any kind of trend in a day when sport specialization has ever more young players spending more and more hours in all seasons working with pitching coaches, Groenewegen's double duty is at least in the minority at the moment. Florida State's Lacey Waldrop, the reigning USA Softball Player of the Year, is exclusively a pitcher. So, too, areOregon All-American Cheridan Hawkins and Western Kentucky's Miranda Kramer, the national leader in strikeouts and strikeouts per seven innings. In fact, of the 14 players with at least 250 strikeouts this season, Groenewegen and SIU-Edwardsville's Haley Chambers are the only two who also hit.

Along with UCLA's Ally Carda, Florida's Lauren Haeger, Oklahoma's Paige Parker and James Madison's duo of Megan Good and Jailyn Ford, Groenewegen hopes to ensure the dual threats are represented in Oklahoma City at the Women's College World Series.

She has lived the other side as a member of the Canadian national team, whose coach Mark Smith prefers that pitchers focus on the ball rather than the bat. It's a sacrifice she was willing to make to represent her country, as did collegiate two-way threat Danielle Lawrie before her. But it wasn't the same game.

"It's not fun because when you hit, I feel like you're able to help yourself out and get some runs," Groenewegen said. "When I'm not on that side of the ball, it kind of sucks, honestly. I want to be able to do something to help my team. My one job [when not in the batting order] is to get the team back in the dugout to hit."

That won't be a problem for her in the weeks ahead. That Minnesota remains in the mix for a national seed in the NCAA tournament is a credit to how well Groenewegen grew into additional innings in her sophomore season after serving as Sara Moulton's understudy a season ago. But the Gophers also need the runs she produces at the plate.

They need the two Groenewegens, a division of labor at which she has proved adept.

"If I'm having a poor game hitting, it doesn't translate into my pitching," Groenewegen said. "And vice versa, so if I'm having a bad game pitching, I can have a good game hitting. I kind of see myself as two different players, if that makes sense. I'll be one player as a pitcher and one player as a hitter, just separating the two as much as I can."