Although the Wisconsin softball team had its 13-game winning streak snapped Wednesday at the hands of No. 19 Nebraska, the Badgers feat of rattling off 13 straight wins was no small task. At the nucleus of that run were the pitching duo of senior Cassandra Darrah and sophomore Taylor-Paige Stewart.
Wisconsin (31-16, 13-6 Big Ten) got run-ruled in the opening act of the double header, with Darrah getting lit up for 12 runs over five innings, leading to a 12-0 defeat. But Stewart righted the ship in the finale, allowing four runs in a complete game outing, which turned out as a 6-4 Badger victory.
Throughout the winning streak, Wisconsin starters Darrah and Stewart posted a combined 13-0 record for the team, scattering 34 runs across those 13 contests. In only two of those games did either hurler allow more than two runs, giving up eight against UW-Green Bay on April 16 and five against Purdue on April 26. Darrah was on the mound for both.
“Having the team back me up many times when I was struggling [was helpful],” Darrah said of her squad’s offensive efforts throughout that winning streak. “It was nice to see our team on a roll. Our team hadn’t had that all year. Even when I was struggling they came back and scored a lot of runs for me.”
This season, only one other Badger, Sara Novak, has entered the circle for UW. She has made two appearances for a total of 1-2/3 innings. This means that just Stewart and Darrah carry the pitching load for the Badgers. Heading into Wednesday’s double-header against Nebraska, Stewart had tossed 118 innings in 22 appearances, while Darrah has amassed 172 innings in 26 appearances this season.
The two have combined for all of Wisconsin’s 31 wins this season. Stewart has posted a 13-5 record, while Darrah has 18 wins and 11 losses.
The 31 wins by UW is the fourth straight season it has reached the 30-win plateau, coinciding with the first four years of head coach Yvette Healy’s tenure in Madison.
Prior to Healy’s arrival at UW, the program had only reached the 30-win mark five times.
“I think that they, the pitchers, have been complementing each other all year,” Healy said.
Since the doubleheader is the common scheduling format in collegiate softball, Healy says it is always nice to have the first pitcher test the waters in the first game, allowing whoever is next in the rotation to exploit the other teams’ offensive weaknesses in the second game.
“You’re facing the best teams in the country,” Healy said. “You just have to manage your expectations. You can’t go into an offense, like the one we just faced [Nebraska] and think that you’re going to shut them out. You just have to contain them, and that’s what Taylor did in that second game.”
Other than the disparity between the two in wins and losses, both have similar statistics otherwise. Stewart has a 2.73 earned run average, while Darrah has a 2.81 ERA. Stewart has struck out 110 batters this season, while Darrah has set down 113 batters whiffing. Darrah has completed three complete-game shutouts, while Stewart has blanked her opponents twice this season.
Darrah has long been a key contributor on the pitching staff for the Badgers. This season she continued her role of staff ace, and is having her best season at Wisconsin. On March 20 against Detroit, Darrah tossed her second career no-hitter.
Darrah, a Corydon, Iowa native, is second on the Badger all-time wins list, with 83 career victories. She is just four wins shy of Andrea Kirshberg’s 87 wins, a feat she hopes to break between now and the conclusion of the season.
Darrah is also currently second all-time for the Badgers in games started (119), innings pitched (788.0) and shutouts (22).
She explained that while chasing records is exciting, she is more focused on winning ball games and being part of a team effort.
“It would be cool,” Darrah said. “Breaking the records as a team is huge, and that’s the most important thing.”
It is different story for Stewart. The sophomore from Calabasas, Calif. appeared in only 12 games last season, starting 5 games for Wisconsin. She was 4-0, including three shutouts. This season, she has stepped into a much larger role on the Wisconsin pitching staff, and has relished the opportunity.
“It’s nice being part of the team and knowing that you play a part in the wins, and even the losses,” Stewart said. “I think that since our team is really coming together, and that’s what bringing me a lot of confidence, it’s not necessarily that a lot of things have changed, but I think everybody is on the same page.”
With Stewart’s emergence, Darrah has taken the opportunity to groom the future ace for the next two seasons following her imminent departure.
“I try to relay my knowledge that I’ve used in my experiences here,” Darrah said. “I definitely think that I can help her along the way, and she helps me too. We help each other along the way.”
As the Badgers head into a key three-game series against Michigan this weekend and the postseason next week, the focus will be on pitching. Darrah and Stewart will have to be stronger than ever for Wisconsin to make any postseason run and defend their Big Ten tournament title.