ORLANDO, Fla. — It’s hard to win a softball game after walking in four runs.
It’s one thing to give up runs when the opposition is simply hitting it hard. But by struggling to find the strike zone, the Michigan softball team’s pitchers allowed Central Florida to take an insurmountable lead early without getting many big hits.
Lacking command from any of its pitchers with nine walks on the day, the Wolverines (38-18 overall, 16-9 Big Ten) fell once more to the Knights (49-12), 9-4, ending their season. Though Michigan attempted to chip away throughout the game, it could never catch UCF, falling in the NCAA regional for the fifth consecutive time.
“They played all weekend,” Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said. “They gave it all they had, and we just fell short.”
And from the get-go, the Wolverines’ fatigue from three long games under the Orlando sun set in.
Only one day after going 7.2 innings while giving up just two runs to keep it in the game, fifth-year left-hander Meghan Beaubien quickly put Michigan in jeopardy with a shaky first frame.
Outfielder Allyse Volpe opened the game with a line drive single into right field. Beaubien followed it up by inducing a flyout and two ground balls, but on both grounders, the fielders’ decision to try to get the force out at second base proved costly as the Knights slid in safely twice to load the bases. And after getting the second out, Beaubien lost her command, walking in the first two runs of the game.
Beaubien’s brief start ended there, and freshman utility player and right-hander Annabelle Widra entered the circle in her place.
But Widra’s command was not much better. She walked the first batter she faced on just four pitches, putting the Wolverines down three runs.
“We gave them too much in the first inning,” Hutchins said. “Too many outs were given away. You just can’t let that momentum build up.”
And in the top of the third inning, UCF extended its lead further. Leading off, designated player Ashleigh Griffin crushed a ball beyond the left-field fence for a solo shot. Widra gave up a single two pitches later, ending her outing as freshman right-hander Lauren Derkowski entered.
Derkowski walked her first batter on four pitches, and fell behind 2-0 to her third. Derkowski exited, bringing senior right-hander Alex Storako in just hours after she threw 90 pitches in a complete-game effort against South Dakota State.
Just like the three pitchers before her, Storako struggled to find the strike zone. She finished off Derkowski’s walk to load the bases, and hit third baseman Kennedy Searcy to bring in the Knights’ fifth run. Michigan’s hole to climb out of grew deeper.
“(Beaubien and Storako), they’re All-Americans. They’re tough,” UCF coach Cindy Ball-Malone said. “A lot of people swing and miss at those balls out of the zone. To walk, I’m really proud of our discipline.”
Though the Knights took an early lead off the Wolverines’ pitching errors, UCF began to let them back in with errors of their own.
In the bottom of the third inning, Michigan started to chip away at the deficit — largely due to the Knights’ sudden fielding issues. Widra and freshman shortstop Ella McVey reached second and third base on an infield single and two errors, and graduate outfielder Kristina Burkhardt capitalized with a two-RBI single up the middle.
The Wolverines tacked on one more run in the fifth inning on a McVey walk, a Burkhardt single and an RBI bloop single by senior first baseman Lexie Blair to cut the Knights’ lead to two.
But in the top of the sixth inning, UCF blew the game back open. Storako walked three more batters and gave up three hits in the inning, including a two-run deep single to Griffin for her second big hit of the day. Outfielder Joneisha Rowe added one more run on her own RBI single.
After walking her fifth batter of the day to load the bases again, Storako left the game, and Beaubien re-entered. Beaubien limited further damage to one run on a sacrifice fly in the seventh inning.
“I just think they pitched their hearts out,” Hutchins said.
Michigan showed signs of life once more in the bottom of the seventh inning. Junior outfielder Audrey LeClair reached on an error, and fifth-year third baseman Taylor Bump singled to bring her in.
But that was all the Wolverines mustered, never fully able to recover from the early hole the pitching staff put them in.
Because for the second season in a row, Michigan’s talented pitchers faltered in the biggest game of the year.