BLOOMINGTON — After No. 1 seed Michigan softball’s 1-0, eight-inning win against Illinois Friday, the Wolverines desperately needed offense. They didn’t allow a run to the conference’s hottest offense, but also couldn’t score until freshman outfielder Lexie Blair’s solo home run in extra innings.
But Saturday, producing offense quickly wasn’t a problem for Michigan.
The Wolverines hung on to defeat No. 5 seed Wisconsin, 8-3, in the semifinal game of the Big Ten Tournament. The win signaled a revival of Michigan’s offense and advances the team to the final against No. 2 seed Northwestern or No. 3 seed Minnesota, depending on the outcome of Saturday afternoon’s matchup between the powerhouse teams.
“Faith started the game off with a well-hit ball, and Natalie was just right on time on that, and it woke us up. It sparked us,” said Michigan coach Carol Hutchins. “That’s why she’s lead-off.”
After senior second baseman Faith Canfield hit a leadoff line drive single to left field, senior outfielder Natalie Peters hit a booming line drive double to the center field wall, and Canfield advanced home, getting the Wolverines on the board early. Senior first baseman Alex Sobczak followed that up with a single batted into left field that allowed Peters to score, giving Michigan a quick 2-0 advantage –– the biggest lead its held all tournament.
On top of Canfield and Peters’ early runs, the Wolverines kept their early momentum through the second inning with hits from senior designated player Mackenzie Nemitz, junior outfielder Haley Hoogenraad, sophomore shortstop Natalia Rodriguez and Canfield. Hoogenraad’s line drive single to right field –– breaking her 2-for-19 slump through the team’s last seven games –– brought freshman utility player Grace Chelemen, who pinch ran for Nemitz, home for the team’s third run of the day. With Rodriguez’s subsequent bunt and Canfield’s single to center field, Michigan sat on that lead with Blair stepping up to bat.
After yesterday’s home run and the bases loaded, the stadium quieted before Blair’s at-bat. But a five-pitch walk moved the freshman to first base and Hoogenraad to home plate for the Wolverines’ fourth run, shifting the bases-loaded pressure to Sobczak, who struck out on four pitches.
“They don’t get too caught up when something’s not going their way,” Hutchins said. “I just thought we were freer, looser.”
Even with the missed opportunity, Michigan’s offense went into the third inning flaming. But unlike in Friday’s game, the Wolverines kept up their performance in both halves of each inning.
In the first three innings, sophomore left-hander Meghan Beaubien threw for a shutout with three strikeouts and just one walk. Along with her tight pitches, Beaubien made a key double play in the second inning. After Peters caught a pop up for the inning’s second out, junior third baseman Madison Uden missed Peters’ throw to third. But in position behind third base, Beaubien made a save picking up the stray throw and launching the ball to senior catcher Alexander for an out at home plate.
As far as relying on Beaubien for fielding as well as pitching, Hutchins added: “Well we knew we could (rely on her).”
After another inning without a walk for Beaubien, and a diving catch by Peters on 2019 Big Ten Player of the Year and Wisconsin first baseman Kayla Konwent’s lob to center field, the Badgers didn’t get on the scoreboard until Wisconsin catcher Taylor Johnson hit a solo home run in the fourth inning.
Even with that run and a solo home run from Uden in the fourth inning, the Badgers trailed, 5-1, entering the bottom of the fourth inning. And Michigan continued to stack up runs.
Batting after Canfield and Peters, who reached base on a double to center field and a bunt, respectively, Blair hit a two-RBI double to the left-center field hole, bumping the Wolverines’ lead to six runs.
In the subsequent inning, though, freshman right-hander Alex Storako stepped in for Beaubien and allowed two singles and a walk, getting herself into a bases-loaded jam with no outs. Having left the game just 15 pitches prior, Beaubien re-entered to get Michigan out of the jam. Though two Wisconsin runners reached home on a two-RBI double from Konwent that made the score 7-3, Beaubien struck out two consecutive batters to avoid any more damage with bases loaded.
Despite the fifth inning scare, the Wolverines managed to hang onto their lead with a run for Rodriguez batted in by Canfield in the sixth inning and two shutout innings from Beaubien to end the game.
“(The team) came here to win it,” Hutchins said. “We all have our work cut out for us if we’re going to play regardless of who we play. We just want to play good ball.”