A walk by fifth-year outfielder Haley Hoogenraad loaded the bases with two outs as junior outfielder Lexie Blair stepped up to the plate in the fourth inning. After struggling against Northwestern in the series opener, Blair’s troubles with managing the count seemed to fade as she worked the count to 3-1.
Blair — feeding off the rain-soaked crowd’s energy — hit a ball into center field with Hoogenraad’s path to third blocking the Wildcat fielders from seeing the ball. It slipped past them as three batters reached home. Blair charged around third as Alumni Field rose to its feet, sliding past the catcher to score herself. Fielding miscues allowed the Wolverines to turn a routine hit into an inside-the-park grand slam.
Those fielding issues defined No. 20 Michigan’s (22-5) 7-2 win over Northwestern (21-9) to open Saturday’s doubleheader. The Wolverines jumped on those offensive chances to win despite unsteady momentum until late in the game.
“When somebody makes a mistake, you need to capitalize on it otherwise it doesn’t hurt them,” Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said after the doubleheader. “ … If people are gonna make mistakes, that’s our goal is to capitalize on it.”
Michigan came out strong against an aggressive Northwestern attack to start the game. Two swinging strikeouts and a foul-out caught by sophomore second baseman Julia Jimenez ended the inning for the Wildcats’ top four hitters.
On offense, though, the Wolverines continued to swing at the unfavorable pitches they struggled with on Friday. They improved their ability to get ahead in counts, but it took Northwestern’s mistakes to get the bats rolling.
That changed in the second inning when senior third baseman Taylor Bump popped up into the shallow outfield and what should have been a routine fly-out dropped between three indecisive Wildcats. It took a single pitch for sophomore utility player Lauren Esman to belt a double off of the left field wall — driving in sophomore pinch runner Audrey LeClair to open the scoring for Michigan.
Momentum had swung toward the Wolverines, but they failed to turn that into extra runs right away. Northwestern pitcher Lauren Boyd struck out two batters and quickly dashed any hope of extra scoring.
The Wildcats jumped on their own scoring chance when shortstop Maeve Nelson smashed a two-run home run to put Northwestern up 2-1. It seemed like the Wildcats were in the driver’s seat despite junior right-hander Alex Storako’s efforts to keep Michigan in striking distance.
The Wolverines wanted that momentum for themselves in the fifth inning. They threatened with runners on the corners but once again Northwestern stopped them from converting that into scores.
In the sixth inning, though, Michigan was able to capitalize as Northwestern continued to be plagued by fielding mistakes. Blair lined a bouncing double into center to score Hoogenraad again. Wild pitches put Blair on third and senior shortstop Natalia Rodriguez hit a double on the right side to score her. The two insurance runs gave the Wolverines what proved to be an insurmountable lead.
Before those late runs, the Wildcats seemed poised to come back. Staying confident helped Michigan earn runs to support Storako.
“My mindset going into every game is just be confident no matter what whether I’m 0-for-20 or 4-for-6,” senior first baseman Lou Allan said. “ … I’m not focused on (outcomes). I’m just focused on staying within myself, staying confident and just hitting the ball.”
Northwestern would attempt a rally to start the seventh inning but to no avail. After a crucial double play, Bump snagged a bunt attempt to seal the win.
Michigan’s opening victory on Saturday raised its expectations after the Wolverines stumbled on Friday. Against its toughest opponent yet, Michigan showed it could manage turbulence on both sides of the ball to earn a win.