MADISON — It was a long trek back to the bus.
The Michigan softball team was tired and defeated, and it was hard to blame the players. After all, it was 1 a.m. — a result of hours of rain delays that pushed the Wolverines’ game back until after 10 p.m. — and everything had gone wrong. Having swept the season series — including a run-rule victory in East Lansing — top-seed Michigan was heavily favored over No. 8 seed Michigan State in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals. But instead, it lost 7-0 in a game even more one-sided than the score indicates.
And though the Wolverines’ season isn’t over, the loss felt foreboding. After all, an early conference tournament exit never bodes well for a team’s NCAA Tournament prospects.
Michigan coach Carol Hutchins stood outside, giving an interview.
“I’m sorry you came all the way out here to see that,” she said.
Those words said it all.
Behind her, the players filed onto the bus. Their faces were streaked with water — from the rain or from tears, it was impossible to tell. They didn’t talk to each other. They were alone with their thoughts, and all that was left to do was load their suitcases, hop on the bus and wonder, “What happened?”
The truth was, everything happened. It was a bad game at an inopportune time, yes. But more than that, it was a deterioration of confidence that failed the Wolverines — the very confidence that made them the team to beat in the first place.
It started with freshman left-hander Meghan Beaubien. Earlier in the season, when nothing else was working, she put Michigan on her back and kept the Wolverines in games they had no business being in. More than that, her tenacity never wavered — earning her the nickname “Beau-bot.” It didn’t matter how big the jam, she could get out of it.
Even before the Spartans struck first — on a two-run single by Lea Foerster — Beaubien pitched tentatively. She nibbled the zone, and Michigan State wouldn’t bite. And after the Spartans got on the board, it all spiraled downward. When she got into another jam in the top of the fifth, the “Beau-bot” was nowhere to be seen. Instead, she allowed two runs to score before Hutchins took mercy and pulled her with the bases loaded and still no one out.
It wasn’t just Beaubien. All pitchers have off-days, and this team is built to pick her up when she needed it. But at the plate things weren’t any better. The lineup at its best is a three-headed monster: contact at the top, power in the middle and speed at the bottom.
Against Michigan State, though, the Wolverines struck out 10 times. They had just three hits, all singles. The more dire the situation grew, the more Michigan pressed at the plate. The grinding at-bats from earlier in the season were gone. Instead, with two strikes came a sense of resignation.
“We talk a lot about trust (but) you’ve gotta really believe it,” Hutchins said. “And we have not shown that we do.”
In their finest moments, the Wolverines are full of confidence and swagger, always laughing and joking and cheering.
On Friday, they were quiet.
Michigan always expected a Big Ten Tournament championship. During the regular season, the Wolverines never doubted that they were capable.
But the postseason is a whole different battle, and Michigan’s confidence evaporated when it was most vital.
And as the Wolverines retreated to the bus after the game, the only thing left to do was pick up the pieces.
Gerson can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @cyan_sunshine.