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Tuesday, September 2, 2014

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Florida State eliminates Michigan from Super Regional on walk-off homer

Ruby Wallau/Daily
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By Jake Lourim, Summer Managing Sports Editor
Published May 23, 2014

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Almost three games and 20 innings had boiled down to this: the Michigan softball team and Florida State, tied at two, in a Super Regional final, with both teams’ stars coming up in the seventh.

But when both walked on nine total pitches, it was up to the rest of their respective teams to come up with the hit that earned a berth to the Women’s College World Series. And that hit came from Florida State center fielder Courtney Senas.

As the Wolverines loaded the bases with no outs in the top half, it was only fitting that nearby lights went off in the middle of the inning, shifting the spotlight onto the winner-take-all game.

But after Florida State got out of that jam, Senas’ walk-off two-run home run ended Michigan’s season with a 4-2 loss.

Michigan got its best opportunity of the day when sophomore shortstop Sierra Romero walked on four pitches, senior first baseman Caitlin Blanchard singled to the warning track in center field and a popup from sophomore outfielder Sierra Lawrence dropped in shallow left field. In a tie game, the Seminoles had to fight out of that jam before they walked off.

“I walked out to the group and (said) it’s very doable,” said Florida State coach Lonni Alameda. “We practice that a ton. We put pitchers out there a lot with no outs early in the fall. … They had a calm confidence about them.”

But with the heart of the lineup out of commission, the Wolverines couldn’t make anything of it. After senior designated player Taylor Hasselbach struck out looking, the Seminoles induced two ground balls, the first of which they sent home for the force.

Long before the night ended on Senas’ blast, when Michigan needed an early spark, it came from third baseman Lindsay Montemarano. The freshman stepped up with one out and popped a solo home run to center field, tying the game at one.

The Wolverines needed the boost after leaving the bases loaded in the first and giving up a run in the bottom half. Florida State shortstop Maddie O’Brien drew a leadoff walk, moved to third on a pair of sacrifices and scored on a single by left fielder Kelly Hensley.

In Michigan’s half, Romero, Blanchard and Lawrence had strung together back-to-back-to-back singles with two outs, but Hasselbach grounded out to the inning.

In the first game, that would have been the best opportunity Michigan got. But in the nightcap, the Wolverines kept chipping away at the nation’s leader in earned-run average, Florida State right-hander Lacey Waldrop. After Lawrence’s bunt single in the third loaded the bases with one out, Hasselbach sent a chopper toward first. The throw home hit Hasselbach, and senior outfielder Nicole Sappingfield slid in safely to give Michigan the lead.

Waldrop got out of that bases-loaded jam, and both pitchers made the game a pitchers’ duel after that. With the heart of the lineup due up in the fifth, Michigan had pinch-runner Brandi Virgil on second with two outs. When Hasselbach singled up the middle, Senas threw a bullet home from center field to get Virgil easily for the final out.

Junior left-hander Haylie Wagner was nearly as good as Waldrop, recovering from a rocky start Thursday night to pitch the complete game.

“She was getting in on our hands, and we had to get the barrel out,” Alameda said. “They stick to the plan as a team, and they really feed off each other.”

In the Seminoles’ half, No. 9 hitter Alex Kossoff led off with a single to bring up O’Brien, the nation’s leader in slugging percentage. But O’Brien swung at the first pitch and popped it up in foul territory for Montemarano.

The rally nearly ended there, but with two outs and a runner on first, Senas poked a popup halfway down the first-base line. Wagner ran over to grab it, but she missed it and it rolled toward the dugout. Florida State second baseman Tiffani Brown came around to score from first, tying the game.

The Wolverines had another chance in the sixth, when they put runners on second and third with two outs. Sappingfield blistered a line drive right at Florida State third baseman Briana Hamilton for the third out.

In all, each team had only one 1-2-3 inning. Michigan left 12 runners on base. A couple fewer, and the game might have been different. The nine fielders might not have walked off the field as soon as Senas’ home run cleared the fence.

“I thought we played with heart,” Hutchins said. “We definitely didn’t give up. We didn’t quit. That’s all you can ask.”