Michigan softball took the field dressed in pink for Friday’s series-opening game against Wisconsin after Thursday’s successful breast cancer fundraising effort.
But the Wolverines couldn’t match the crowd’s excitement.
“(Michigan coach Carol Hutchins) talks about staying within ourselves,” sophomore shortstop Sierra Romero said. “We kind of fell off of that today. We told her we wanted change, so we’re going to show her.”
For the fourth time in as many conference series’, No. 7 Michigan came out flat, and for the fourth straight time, it proved costly in a 9-3 loss. After two dropped pitches, a walk and a base hit gave Wisconsin (14-6 Big Ten, 32-16 overall) the lead in the first inning, Hutchins immediately took junior right-handed pitcher Sara Driesenga aside in the huddle for a one-sided conversation.
“How many balls did we bounce off of (junior catcher Lauren) Sweet?” Hutchins said. “I told Sweet, ‘On Monday you can come and throw balls at her.’ ”
This time, Michigan (17-4 Big Ten, 39-10 overall) fought back with some of the spark that helped the team begin conference play on a 20-game win streak, but that too was short lived. Wisconsin put runners on base all game and scored in bunches behind six RBI from second baseman Sara Novak.
The loss was Michigan’s fourth in Big Ten play, all in series openers.
“This is the third Friday in a row I don’t think we’ve really showed up to play,” Hutchins said. “We’ve been tentative, and it’s gotten worse. I’m mad, that’s not Michigan softball.”
The Wolverines found production from the middle of the order when senior designated player Taylor Hasselbach sent a pitch sailing over the center-field wall. Romero took the lead for Michigan in the third with a similar shot that she crushed onto the baseball field behind the outfield wall.
The 2-1 lead wouldn’t be enough to hold off the Badgers, though. Wisconsin’s bats came alive again in the top of the fourth when Novak hit a two-run double to the left-center field gap.
On the play, junior catcher Lauren Sweet nearly tagged Mary Massei at the plate for the third out, but the Wisconsin leadoff hitter barely grabbed the back of the plate on a terrific slide.
Wisconsin continued to pile on runs in the top of the fifth when Driesenga walked two batters and saw one score on an error by freshman first baseman Kelly Christner, who replaced Caitlin Blanchard in the fourth. Hutchins pulled Driesenga after the score and replaced her with Haylie Wagner, the left-handed junior who has been struggling lately but was the team’s ace for the first two thirds of the season.
Driesenga left the game with five walks and with Michigan still searching for consistency in the circle. Freshman Megan Betsa has been the only pitcher to throw a complete game in the last three series.
Wagner got the Wolverines out of the jam, but the team couldn’t find any momentum at the plate. Romero, one of the country’s top hitters, ended the bottom of the fifth by hitting into a double play.
“I think we’re playing very individual,” Hutchins said. “Individuals don’t win, this is not track. There is no leadership on the field.”
Novak’s grand slam in the seventh sealed the game for Wisconsin, as Michigan could only put one run on the board in the bottom of the inning.
The loss tightened up the race for a conference championship as Michigan fell to only one game ahead of Nebraska.
Despite their potential, Hutchins said her players seem to be affected by the superficial aspects of the sport, to their detriment on the field.
“This is a team that is so afraid of not winning, they’re so caught up in their outcomes, which is not what we teach at Michigan,” Hutchins said. “We teach process, but they’re not buying in. The pitchers are definitely not doing it, and they are letting us down big time.
“They’re afraid they’re not going to get a ring.”