EVANSTON — As if the Michigan softball team needed any more reminding that rankings don’t determine the final score, the Wolverines started play in the Big Ten Tournament having just watched co-conference champion Nebraska get knocked out by Ohio State.
And after a close start to the game, Michigan (19-5 Big Ten, 41-11 overall) showed it received the message loud and clear after four straight series in which it lost the opening game.
The 10th-ranked Wolverines beat Illinois, 8-2, in the quarterfinals behind a complete game from junior left-hander Haylie Wagner and long home runs by senior first baseman Caitlin Blanchard and freshman third baseman Lindsay Montemarano.
Michigan, which lost to the Fighting Illini (7-17, 24-26) in the opener of a three-game set in April, allowed two early base runners courtesy of an error and an infield single. But before the Wolverines opening-game woes could reappear, Wagner collected herself to strike out the inning’s final batter and get out of the jam.
The week’s chatter from Michigan — which lost its first series of the season to Wisconsin last weekend — revolved around finding their fire and not trying to do too much. The optimistic talk didn’t prevent a few first-inning hiccups, though, as sophomore shortstop Sierra Romero committed a throwing error on the game’s first at-bat, and senior outfielders Lyndsay Doyle and Nicole Sappingfield both struck out to begin the contest.
Soon though, the Wolverines hit their stride.
With two outs in the bottom of the second, junior catcher Lauren Sweet doubled down the right-field line before Montemarano sent the next pitch high over the scoreboard in left to give Michigan a 2-0 lead.
In the top of the third inning, despite the fact that Wagner induced plenty of ground balls, Illinois scored a run off a string of bad bounces against the Wolverines.
With one on and one out, freshman second baseman Abby Ramirez fielded a grounder, but didn’t have a clean play at first or second, allowing another runner to reach. On the next at bat, a well-hit ball up the middle looked like it would be good for at least a force out at second, but instead hopped over the bag, loading the bases.
Sophomore left fielder Sierra Lawrence made a head-first play on the ball, but her dive allowed a runner to tag up and score from third.
Wagner got out of the inning, but Illinois would not go quietly just yet.
“Haylie had to stay strong and just do her part,” Hutchins said. “She had done her part and it hadn’t worked, but we hung in there. That’s tough softball.”
In the top of the fifth, it took a spectacular running play from Romero to snag a liner and a perfect throw from Sweet to oust a would-be base stealer to keep Michigan ahead.
Wagner, who led the Big Ten in ERA during the regular season, allowed a base runner in each of the first five innings, but ultimately looked in command in the circle.
“I just came out with a lot of confidence,” Wagner said. “I was just focused on Lauren Sweet and I and the K zone.”
The defensive rally in the top of the fifth seemed to inspire the offense in the bottom of the inning. With Doyle and Sappingfield already on base, the Fighting Illini intentionally walked Romero to face Blanchard.
Up to that point this season, all six times Romero had been intentionally walked, Blanchard had followed with an RBI. Blanchard put an exclamation point on that statistic by driving the first pitch over the fence in right field for a grand slam.
“It was kind of just ‘see-ball, hit-ball,’ Blanchard said.
That bomb appeared to break Illinois’ spirit, which was set down in order in the top of the sixth and then fell flat in the bottom half as Michigan tacked on two more.
While some of the top opponents remain in the Wolverines’ way to a tournament title, Friday’s win could prove key in their postseason run. They rolled with the Fighting Illini’s punches and then hit back harder, making sure there wasn’t another upset Friday.