As the No. 19 Michigan softball team faced in-state foe Michigan State, two of the Big Ten’s top pitchers were deployed for the meeting.
They did not disappoint.
In the pitching battle between junior right-hander Alex Storako, the Big Ten ERA leader, and right-hander Ashley Miller, holder of the fifth-best ERA in the conference, Storako prevailed. She out-dueled the Spartans’ freshman star to navigate the Wolverines to a 1-0 victory in nine innings.
Storako was absolutely brilliant in the extra-inning affair. She surrendered only two hits and two walks, and highlighted her performance with 22 strikeouts — a program record.
In her best showing of what has become a career-season, Storako broke the previous Michigan strikeout record of 19 set by Jennie Ritter in 2006 and matched by herself and senior left-hander Meghan Beaubien earlier in the season.
“(Breaking the strikeout record) is pretty awesome,” Storako said. “Just to be in the history books, and be able to wear the block ‘M’ on the field, is just so exciting, so it’s a great feeling for sure.”
Despite Storako’s dominance, victory did not come easily for the Wolverines. The team’s offense entered the matchup red-hot, posting 34 runs in four games at Penn State last weekend, but failed to break through Miller’s excellent pitching.
The Spartans’ ace effectively commanded at-bats throughout the affair. She remained even-keeled when Michigan put pressure on the base-paths, working her way out of multiple jams to strand runners and keep the game scoreless through eight innings. Although allowing nine hits, she nearly spoiled Storako’s historic performance via dominance of her own.
“(Miller) doesn’t give up a lot of runs,” Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said. “I didn’t think we counter-moved against her very well.”
One of Storako’s only bluders came in the very first at-bat of the game, when she walked Catie Ladd on four pitches. After a pop out and a single, Storako entered a zone, completely taking over the game. She struck out the next thirteen batters in a row, producing a strikeout streak that spanned from the bottom of the first to the bottom of the fifth inning.
Despite losing her strikeout streak by way of flyout in the fifth, Storako remained in control. In the bottom of the sixth, Courtney Callahan drove a full count pitch deep into center field to start the inning, but junior outfielder Lexie Blair tracked it down, running into the wall to make the grab. Storako then struck out four of the next five batters to send the game to extra innings.
“(Storako) was just dialed in,” Hutchins said. “One pitch at a time, and (she) had great arm-whip.”
As Storako stifled batters at the plate, Miller matched her production. Although not as dominant as Storako, Miller masterfully managed at-bats with runners on base to keep the score locked at 0.
After cruising through the first three innings, Miller faced first and third base loaded with two outs in the fourth, but retired sophomore infielder Julia Jiminez to end the threat. She then worked her way out of second and third base one-out jams in the top of the sixth and seventh innings.
In the eight inning, Miller faced a two-out, bases-loaded situation. She locked into a battle with fifth-year senior Haley Hoogenraad and struck her out swinging on a full count pitch, electrifying the Michigan State dugout and crowd.
Miller’s one big mistake proved to be the difference. She left a 2-1 pitch high in the zone in the top of the ninth that Blair blasted over the right field fence for a solo home run.
Storako, meanwhile, avoided such a fate in extra innings. Her nearly flawless pitching attack translated past her seventh inning of work. She struck out the side in the eight inning, and when her offense finally gave her a lead going into the ninth, she was able to put the Spartans away.
Staying true to form, Storako ended the game on a strikeout looking, jumping up and down as she exited the circle in triumph, outlasting Miller in a marquee win.