EAST LANSING – In the bottom of the seventh, with the score knotted at one and no outs recorded, the No. 23 Michigan softball team had the momentum.
With no outs, the Wolverines had two runners in scoring position for junior outfielder Audrey LeClair. LeClair has been red-hot as of late, and was one of only two Michigan players to notch a hit all game.
The game was in the Wolverines’ hands.
But with a singular pitch, that all changed. LeClair grounded a ball towards second baseman Cam Ybarra, who managed to tag out the runner heading to second and then threw out LeClair at first. Two runners with no outs evaporated into one runner with two outs. A flyout quickly ended the inning.
That one play shifted the momentum completely as the Wolverines took the field to begin extras.
Ybarra — who was facing senior right-hander Alex Storako for the fourth time — found solid contact in the eighth, giving the Cornhuskers a lead they would not relinquish, and the Big Ten Tournament title along with it.
“I thought (Storako) kept us in the game the whole way,” Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said.
Storako put together a quality outing — only giving up significant scoring plays to Ybarra, the eventual Big Ten Player of the Tournament.
But, the Wolverines only managed three hits over the course of an eight-inning affair, and on top of that, these hits were only distributed between their top two batters in the order: senior outfielder Kristina Burkhardt and LeClair.
Saturday’s game contrasted Michigan’s seventh inning heroics over Northwestern just one day ago, when one pitch lifted the Wolverines to victory thanks to a rocket by fifth-year third baseman Taylor Bump. Instead, Michigan failed to convert, and left East Lansing without any hardware.
But Hutchins still took note of the Wolverine’s recent surge in both performance and confidence.
“Our kids were great,” Hutchins said. “They’ve been playing great ball, and we’re not gonna let one day or one moment define us.”
But just over a month ago, Hutchins was not nearly as positive. After doubleheader losses to this same Nebraska team, Hutchins was adamant that the entire team needed to find its confidence.
“You know, what concerns me more than anything right now is their confidence is very low,” Hutchins said on March 25.
In Saturday’s championship loss, aspects of these doubleheader losses were visible. In those games, quiet bats were unable to provide any run support, and singular pitching lapses would cost Michigan the game — some of the same issues that would plague the Wolverines on Saturday. Those games put them in a 0-2 hole in the conference standings — a hole they would spend the rest of the regular season digging themselves out of.
But Michigan is a different team than it was in March, and that was apparent in the game’s most critical moments.
Towards the end of conference play, the Wolverines have been no stranger to clutch wins. Over the last three weeks, Michigan has put several multi-run comebacks together in the final inning of play, culminating in Friday’s walk off against the Wildcats. The team has garnered a reputation of making clutch plays when the moment requires it, which has trickled down to the players in the form of a calm confidence even in high-pressure situations.
That confidence was present in the seventh, and this loss will in no way erase it.
“We gotta put it behind us,” Hutchins said. “ … Tomorrow, this will be yesterday.”
While this loss is a blow to the team’s recent confidence, the shortcomings against Nebraska by no means derail Michigan’s postseason hopes. The Wolverines will still make the regionals, and making the Super Regionals is within their reach as well. If they do so, it will be for the first time since 2016.
In order to do that though, they first need to forget this loss, and remember their growth throughout the season that brought them there.