Michigan battles, sweeps Rutgers doubleheader
Sometimes, a sweep is nice and easy.
Other times, the wins on the record conceal the less-than-glamorous means it took to get there.
The latter was the case for the No. 17 Michigan softball team (10-1 Big Ten, 35-7 overall) on Friday when it swept a doubleheader against Rutgers (2-7, 17-21) with scores of 11-1 and 9-2. Despite the lopsided numbers on the scoreboard, both games at times seemed as if they could slip away from the Wolverines.
It was evident from the start of the first game that freshman left-hander Meghan Beaubien didn’t have her best stuff. She allowed a double and a single in the first inning to put the Scarlet Knights on the board. Michigan was in an unfamiliar position: playing from behind.
“It’s kind of like getting in a fight,” said senior right-hander Tera Blanco. “You get punched first, well, what are you gonna do? You’re obviously gonna punch back. (So) that was kind of our mentality.”
The Wolverines didn’t take long to punch back, as sophomore third baseman Madison Uden hit a grand slam in the bottom of the frame to put Michigan up, 4-1.
From there, it was mostly smooth sailing. Beaubien settled in and the Wolverines kept tacking on runs. A two-RBI double from senior first baseman Aidan Falk in the third and RBI singles from freshman shortstop Natalia Rodriguez and junior center fielder Natalie Peters extended the lead to 8-1 when Blanco stepped up to the plate.
The first three pitches missed, but Michigan coach Carol Hutchins gave Blanco — who had already walked three times — the green light to swing. She did, and launched the ball out of the stadium for a three-run home run to end the game with the score 11-1.
“I told her before she got to bat, ‘Hey, if they put one in there, just hit it to the moon,’ ” Falk said. “She hit it past the moon.”
The beginning of the second game was reminiscent of the first. Blanco didn’t have her best stuff. She got out of the inning with no damage done, but consistently fell behind in counts. The Wolverines got an early 3-0 advantage on a two-run home run by Falk and a RBI single from Canfield, but the lead felt uncomfortable.
In the fourth, a double and a single cut Michigan’s lead to 3-1, and while Blanco scored on a single from Uden in the bottom of the frame, she found herself in more trouble in the fifth.
A double, a walk and a single once again shaved the Wolverines’ margin to two. Then Blanco allowed another single to put runners on first and second with two outs and Rutgers’ best hitter, Rebecca Hall, coming to the plate. Hutchins opted to intentionally walk Hall instead of having her face the struggling Blanco.
“(We) were debating whether we were gonna walk her and then put in Meghan, whether we would change pitchers,” Hutchins said. “ … She’s their best player. She’s hitting .400, her stats are huge.
“ … We left her in because Tera has to be able to pitch herself out of jams, and sometimes we’ve taken her out, but tonight her offense was on and we’ve gotta be able to trust that her offense can make up anything that happens.”
Hutchins was right. After running a full count, Blanco came back to strike out the final batter swinging and minimize the damage. And in the bottom of the inning, her two-run single erased any memory of her struggles.
Michigan would add two more runs in the frame on a bases-loaded walk and a wild pitch and another in the sixth on a solo home run off the bat of Falk, and by then the score was 9-2 and what was once a tense, dramatic contest was suddenly anything but.
“You can see the intensity go up and down in the lineup,” Hutchins said. “We get ahead in the game, we were 3-0, I thought we kinda coasted for a couple innings. … Then we — the game’s getting tight, and then I thought our intensity tightened itself up.”
Maybe, for a team used to near-effortless wins, a little adversity was just what the doctor ordered.