Two first-team All-Big Ten players. Four plate appearances.

Lea Foerster vs. Megan Betsa.

It was the game within the game during Michigan’s dramatic 5-4 defeat at the hands of Michigan State in Friday’s Big Ten Tournament quarterfinal. Foerster’s unstoppable bat against the Wolverines’ ace proved the difference in arguably the biggest win in Spartans program history.

In the second regular season matchup between the teams, Betsa got the best of Foerster in a big spot. With two outs and the bases loaded in the matchup in April, Betsa blew a 2-2 pitch past the Michigan State centerfielder to end the threat on the way to a 5-1 Michigan victory.

“The past two games this year against (Betsa), she’s gotten me out of my zone,” Foerster said. “I’ve struck out quite a few times.”

In her two starts this season before Friday against the Spartans, Betsa totaled 31 strikeouts and just two runs in her 14 innings of work in two convincing wins. 

But on this day, it was Foerster getting the best of Betsa, proving a menace atop the Spartans’ order — reaching base in all four of her at-bats — and paving the way for the win nobody could have seen coming.

She got the afternoon started by working a full count, finishing off her seven pitch walk with a defiant clap of the hands and gesture to her boosted dugout. Her approach and demeanor set a clear tone: Michigan State wasn’t here for a moral victory.

With one swing of the bat in her next at-bat, Foerster changed the entire game, shooting a deep fly ball to left field that just outreached a leaping effort from sophomore outfielder Natalie Peters. The ball ricocheted off the wall, scoring a runner from first. Foerster scampered into third base, and just like that the Spartans had a lead and, maybe more importantly, hope.

In her third plate appearance, Foerster continued her dominance of Betsa, lacing a line drive into right field for a clean single.

“I think typically things start (in your head) and then they affect your mechanics,” Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said of Betsa’s struggles. “Whether you’re trying too hard, whether you’re trying to be perfect, whether you’re “Wow, you’re a good hitter, I better throw around her,” I’m not in her head, but I didn’t think she was herself tonight and I think she can throw better than she threw. But give credit to Lea Foerster and some of those kids, they were outstanding.”

Betsa struck out just six hitters, her lowest total in a six-plus inning outing all season.

In total, Betsa threw 18 pitches to Foerster, and got just two strikes past her. Foerster reached a full count twice on the Wolverines’ right-hander, including an epic seven-pitch battle in the top of the seventh inning. 

With the first two runners in the inning reaching base and Michigan leading 4-2, Foerster lined an RBI single into right field and advanced to second base on the throw. She would later score the game-winning run on a single from third baseman Kaitlyn Eveland.

Hutchins is famous for her depiction of softball as a “one-pitch” game, intending to convey the scope with which a given game can change on a given pitch. 

But this game was determined in four at-bats. In 18 pitches. It was a battle of two all-Big Ten players, but Friday, only one of them proved that distinction.

And in turn, only one will be playing Saturday.

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