Maggie Balint would have been happy just to be back in the circle again, even if the appearance went mostly unnoticed.

When the crowd surprised the sophomore pitcher with a standing ovation during Oregon’s softball win over Utah last Sunday at Jane Sanders Stadium, Balint was overwhelmed by the response.

“Unbelievable,” Balint said of the feeling. “I didn’t really think they noticed that much, and when they stood up and started going crazy, it really made me think, ‘Man, our fans really are the best fans in the country.’

“It was awesome to see. When the fans got up, it was breathtaking.”

Many of Balint’s performances last season left opposing hitters gasping. She was a first-team all-Pac-12 selection and a finalist for national freshman of the year, finishing with a 1.22 earned-run average and averaging 8.4 strikeouts per seven innings over 31 appearances.

But lower-back problems prevented Balint from lifting weights or running until about a month ago.

The emergence of classmate Miranda Elish (18-1, 1.09 ERA) as a dominant No. 2 behind ace Megan Kleist (19-5, 0.91 ERA), who Wednesday was named one of 10 finalists for USA Softball's collegiate player of the year, has limited Balint to only 15 appearances (nine starts) all season.

“It’s definitely frustrating,” Balint said. “It’s a different mindset. You have to stay positive and not be so down on yourself all the time and be supportive of the other pitchers.”

Kleist didn’t seem to mind exiting the final regular-season home game because it meant coach Mike White was giving Balint a chance to step back into the spotlight and finish off an important Pac-12 win.

“After Megan got pulled out of that game she was super excited, crying for me, that I got to go out there,” Balint said. “We’re all competitive people here, we’re one of the top teams in the country, top pitchers in the nation.

“And even though Megan got pulled out of that game for me to go out there and have some confidence and motivation to go back out there again, that really speaks a lot for our pitching staff and what kind of kids coach White is recruiting.”

Oregon announced this week that freshman pitcher Olivia Kinsey, who only made two appearances, has left the program.

After the spring term, Balint plans to return to Pennsylvania for three months to work with a back specialist and do her own training.

“I need the structure of my family right now,” Balint said. “So I think that’s what I’m going to do this summer and still focus on softball more than I did last summer.”

Oregon has a dominant one-two pitching punch with Kleist and Elish, who will both be back next season.

White wants Balint to be an important part of the rotation again — perhaps even this weekend when the second-ranked Ducks (44-7, 18-3 Pac-12) try to win a conference championship at No. 24 California.

“I definitely want to try to get her out there to see whether or not she’s continuing to build on what she’s doing,” White said, noting that Balint’s velocity last Sunday was close to her 2017 form when she routinely threw 68 mph. “You’d have another option, somebody that throws a really good rise ball, a good screwball on the hands.

“She could be that closing mentality kind of player. That’s what we hope to get back out of her is that closing mentality.”

Balint, who is 7-1 this season with a 2.01 ERA, said the encouraging part about her struggle is the solution is simply getting physically healthy.

Mentally, she’s ready to command the circle again.

“This last month and a half has been really hard on me, and the fact that I went out there for two innings and my speed was up to par was awesome,” Balint said. “It’s showing me that it’s a process and you have to trust it, and that (performance) kind of validated the process that I’ve been going through. …

“Now I have to relax and let it happen.”