ORLANDO, Fla. — Sometimes, a sufficient fielding day and a single scoring outburst is enough for a simple win.
That was how the Michigan softball team (37-16 overall, 14-8 Big Ten) began its NCAA Regional game against South Dakota State (40-12), as it scraped together a 2-1 victory on the backs of clean fielding and adequate batting execution.
Though the affair was low-scoring, the bats on both sides were fairly active early on.
In the top of the first inning, the Jackrabbits stranded runners on second and third from a hit and walk. In the bottom half, with the bases loaded and two outs, the Wolverines failed to bring any of the runners home.
Things then settled down for a few innings. After giving up another hit, senior right-hander Alex Storako threw her first strikeout of the game, and on the next pitch escaped the second with a groundout. South Dakota State responded by retiring the Michigan hitters in order.
By the third, the game was a full fledged pitchers duel with both teams making contact but nothing falling for hits. Freshman left fielder Ellie Sieler brought in two catches in the top of the fourth, leading the Wolverines’ fielding efforts with six putouts by game’s end.
“We have one of the best outfields in the country,” Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said. “So that was actually kind of the game plan. We’re gonna have to just continue to be tough until we can score. Then we need our pitching to hold us in the game. And I trust our defense, we’re playing some great ball.”
The stalemate on the scoreboard broke in the bottom of the fifth, when senior center fielder Lexie Blair capitalized on loaded bases to open the scoring with a 2-RBI single down the left field line.
“The pitcher did a great job of mixing her speeds,” Blair said. “And I think for us as a team, we’re sticking to a game plan and just picking one and driving any hittable pitch that came across. For me going through that at bat I was really trying to just focus on building and driving that first hittable and I’m pretty sure I found the first pitch.”
After the Wolverines got on the board, the Jackrabbits followed suit. In the first at bat of the sixth inning, South Dakota State infielder Cylie Halvorson cranked a solo shot past the center field wall to cut the Michigan lead in half.
But, again, the fielding held strong. A called strikeout from Storako and a routine grounder to McVey, her fourth of the game, isolated the damage.
“It means the world,” Storako said of the fielding support. “I just think it goes to show how much trust that us pitchers have in our defense and how we’ve grown with that throughout the season. I think that kind of trust is going to take us a long way.”
With yet another groundout and flyout to lead off the seventh, Storako was set to win the game on her third strikeout — but a dropped third strike and a throwing error from senior catcher Hannah Carson put those plans on hold. This would end Storako’s outing, and bring in fifth-year left-hander Meghan Beaubien.
Though a walk from Beaubien brought the tying run into scoring position, she remained calm and collected, confident in her abilities as she struck out the next batter. As the umpire called the third strike, she celebrated triumphantly.
And considering the reliability of the fielders behind her on Friday, the confidence she had in getting the final out was an unsurprising sight as the game sealed.