BLOOMINGTON — Saturday’s Big Ten Tournament semifinal matchup between the No. 1 seed Michigan softball team and No. 5 seed Wisconsin began with a star-studded battle.
In the circle, Wolverines’ sophomore left-hander Meghan Beaubien shook off a sign from behind the plate. In the batter’s box, Badgers’ first baseman Kayla Konwent dug in.
The stage was set. With a trip to the championship game at stake, the Big Ten’s 2018 Pitcher of the Year began the day with a duel against its 2019 Player of the Year. In anticlimactic fashion, Konwent bounced a soft dribbler back to Beaubien, who threw over to first for the game’s first out.
After retiring Konwent, who leads the conference with a .477 batting average, Beaubien didn’t look back. She retired seven of the next eight batters and used a second-inning double play to face the minimum number of batters.
Yesterday, Beaubien tossed 3.1 scoreless innings in relief of freshman right-hander Alex Storako. Together, the duo hurled eight shutout innings in Michigan’s 1-0 extra-inning victory over No. 9 seed Illinois in Friday’s quarterfinal round.
“(Beaubien and Storako) have been really dominating the mound,” said freshman left fielder Lexie Blair. “If they’re getting behind on the count or there’s runners on base, they’re still going to come back to win on the mound, win the inning.
“It’s been great to see them work so well together. They’re a great pair. You can always rely on them, you’re never going to doubt them. If they’re behind, we have them. We can pick them up.”
When Konwent stepped back into the box for round two, Beaubien began the at-bat with a pair of balls well outside the strike zone. Up 2-0 in the count, Konwent lined the third pitch into centerfield. As the ball tailed away, senior outfielder Natalie Peters made a diving catch to keep Konwent out of the hit column.
From there, Beaubien shredded a red-hot Wisconsin lineup that scored 17 runs in its first two games of the tournament.
Her first blip on the radar came in the fourth inning when Michigan already held a five-run lead. Down 2-1 in the count, Beaubien left a pitch to Badgers’ catcher Taylor Johnson over the heart of the plate. Johnson made her pay, driving a solo home run over the left-center field fence to put Wisconsin on the scoreboard.
In four innings of work, Beaubien gave up only one run on two hits before being replaced by Storako. But after Storako worked herself into a bases-loaded jam with no outs, coach Carol Hutchins opted to reinsert Beaubien.
She picked up right where she left off, promptly striking out the first two batters she faced. Beaubien’s changeup and fastball complemented each other all game long — that is, until Konwent stepped into the batter’s box for her third crack at deciphering the Wolverines’ ace.
In typical Player of the Year fashion, Konwent delivered. She laced a two-out, two-run double to left field, trimming Wisconsin’s deficit to 7-3. Though the runs were charged to Storako because the baserunners were inherited, Konwent’s big hit still gave her a victory over Beaubien.
But, as she often has against Big Ten opponents, Beaubien remained unfazed. She induced a pop up to end the threat in the fifth inning and retired the side on just eleven pitches in the sixth frame.
In the top of the seventh frame, the game ended the same way it started. Beaubien handled a ground ball back to the circle, putting the nail in the Badgers’ coffin once and for all.
When the dust settled, the Big Ten’s 2018 Pitcher of the Year advanced to the tournament final after limiting the 2019 Player of the Year’s offense to just three runs.