For most of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, it was the Lilli Backes show for the North Carolina softball team.
The sophomore pitcher was dominant on Friday in the weekend's opening contest against Minnesota. With the Tar Heels being unable to produce anything from the plate, Backes took over, striking out seven Golden Gophers on her way to a complete game shutout in the team's 1-0 victory. The next day, she tossed three more scoreless innings to help the Tar Heels beat Minnesota once again, 10-5.
Backes' first season in Chapel Hill had its ups and downs, as she compiled a 6.41 ERA and an 8-14 record. But if this weekend was any indication, she's ready to take the next step in 2023.
“While she’s not huge in stature, she’s got great movement,” head coach Donna J. Papa said. “Her demeanor on the mound, her mindset and just how she competes, I think will set her apart as she keeps working through the ACC.”
Even after surrendering four runs in the team's loss to Maryland on Sunday, Backes' ERA sits at just 2.00. She credits her strong start to UNC's pitching coach, Chelsey Dobbins, who returned to the staff after being on maternity leave last season.
The southpaw has found success thus far by working inside — pounding fastballs inside and then fooling batters with a riser or an offspeed pitch in the dirt. This strategy has worked wonders as she's already racked up 18 strikeouts through six appearances.
“I work inside with rise balls into hitters so I tend to hit them a lot,” Backes said. “But that’s also how I get people out.”
Backes has also been productive at escaping jams. On Friday, Backes left 11 Gophers stranded on the basepaths.
The sophomore credited her success to the defense behind her. The Tar Heels had one error in the field Friday night but came up clutch when needed. With a runner on third and two outs in the seventh, second basemen Abby Settlemyre fielded a tough short-hop grounder in the webbing of her glove and threw to first to deliver Backes the win.
“My defense working behind me — they just played very well,” Backes said.
Backes' progress in the circle represents the overall improvement of UNC's rotation so far this season. In 2022, UNC ranked 257th in the nation in team ERA at 5.31. Led by Backes and junior transfer Bailey McCachren, this year’s rotation has lowered that number to 2.71.
With the offense struggling to produce runs at a reliable clip, this dominance has kept the Tar Heels in games.
The bats have been up and down, exploding for 10 runs on Saturday but being limited to just one on Friday. Senior Bri Stubbs’ RBI double was the lone bright spot in Friday's narrow win, but she knows the offense has to get better.
“We are trying to do too much as a team,” Stubbs said. “We got to realize that once we string hits together, that’s how we score runs.”
Finding the bats will be crucial for the Tar Heels to make noise this season in the ACC. The offense has shown glimpses of productivity with a nine-run outing against Elon and a two-run, four-hit seventh inning against No. 3 Oklahoma State, but has failed to produce consistently.
The offense has the entire season to get clicking, but for the time being, the Tar Heels might just have to ride the wave of a pitching staff that casts Lilli Backes as its leading figure.
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