Seeking to win its Big Ten opening-weekend series against Northwestern (1-2 Big Ten, 10-18 overall), the Michigan softball team couldn’t be halfhearted heading into its final game against the Wildcats on Sunday.
After the second-ranked Wolverines righted the ship Saturday, a strong response after their disastrous performance in Friday’s loss, Michigan coach Carol Hutchins had a clear mission for her team.
“I just wanted them to come out and compete,” Hutchins said. “Sometimes you take a negative situation and turn it into a positive. I don’t want a team that ever gets complacent or lackadaisical, and when you win a lot of games — I say this every year — you can get soft and just think you’re going to win because you haven’t lost much. … I want a team that comes out to be relentless every pitch of the game.”
The Wolverines (2-1, 24-3) answered her call to action in strong fashion, wasting no time lighting up the scoreboard.
After senior center fielder Sierra Lawrence led off the game with a walk and senior second baseman Sierra Romero reached base on an error, senior left fielder Kelly Christner hit a sacrifice bunt to advance both runners. With Lawrence and Romero in scoring position, senior right fielder Kelsey Susalla did what clean-up hitters do, smashing an RBI double to the center-field wall to bring both runners home and give Michigan a 2-0 lead.
Taking advantage early has become a dominant trend for the Wolverines, and it is something the team emphasizes.
“A lot of it has to do with our energy in the dugout, and just having good pitch selection and staying within ourselves and in our process,” Susalla said. “I try and focus on getting my bat on the ball and putting the ball in play, just knowing my teammates behind me will have my back.”
The Wolverines went right back to work in the second inning. With the bases loaded and no outs, Michigan found itself in prime position to do major damage as Romero walked up to bat. Swinging on the first pitch, Romero sent a sacrifice fly to deep center field, but poor base running turned the routine fly ball into a double play, and Northwestern tagged senior pinch runner Olivia Richvalsky out at third.
After the Wolverines squandered an opportunity to break the game open, Christner took it upon herself to make sure Michigan extended its lead over the Wildcats. With two outs in the inning, Christner slammed a two-run home run well over the wall in left field to give the Wolverines a 5-0 lead.
Having tossed two scoreless innings heading into the third inning, fifth-year senior right-hander Sara Driesenga found herself in trouble after allowing a walk and bunt single without recording an out. But Driesenga battled back against the next two batters she faced, relying on the defense to bail her out of the jam. Two back-to-back groundouts later, Driesenga appeared to be in the clear.
Looking like she may escape the inning unscathed, Driesenga induced a fly ball to left field for what seemed to be the final out of the frame. But on a sunny day in Ann Arbor, Christner lost sight of the ball. It hit her glove and bounced to the ground, allowing the Wildcat runners to score to cut Michigan’s lead to 5-2.
Junior right-hander Megan Betsa entered the game in the fifth to relieve Driesenga, and she pitched two innings of one-hit, shutout ball.
Michigan put the game away in the sixth, when Montemarano’s solo blast to center gave the Wolverines a 7-3 lead. Then Michigan began to pour it on. A single by sophomore catcher Aidan Falk and a double by junior shortstop Abby Ramirez set the stage for Lawrence to unleash an RBI double to score both runners and give Michigan a 9-3 advantage.
Chasing the run-rule margin, the Wolverines remained in attack mode. Lawrence advanced to third on a wild pitch and Romero walked before Christner hit a fielder’s choice RBI grounder that brought Michigan within one run of the run rule.
After Susalla flied out, the Wolverines had only one out remaining, but that’s all sophomore first baseman Tera Blanco needed. Continuing her stellar weekend at the plate, Blanco launched a walk-off RBI double to the gap in right center, scoring Christner all the way from first base to seal Michigan’s 11-3 run-rule victory.