SEATTLE — From the first pitch thrown by Washington’s Gabbie Plain — a called strike — it looked to be a pitching duel.
On her second pitch, junior outfielder Lexie Blair grounded out to second.
On her third pitch, senior infielder Natalia Rodriguez hit it right back to Plain and was thrown out at first. Five pitches later, senior first baseman Lou Allan was retired, swinging on a well-placed ball at the bottom of the zone.
Junior right-hander Alex Storako answered, confirming just how this game would go. After conceding a single to Husky leadoff hitter Sis Bates, Storako came back, striking out three-straight — including Baylee Klingler, who held a team-leading .416 average and just seven strikeouts in 154 at-bats.
For the majority of the game, the battle from the rubber continued, until the Wolverines (37-6) rallied late to outlast the 16th national-seed NCAA regional host Huskies (42-12) in a 2-1 victory.
“It was going to take our pitcher keeping us in the game for us to have the chance to win it,” Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said. “And really how do you beat a good pitcher? Well you have to have a good pitcher.”
The first sign of an opportunity for either team came at the top of the second. With two outs, sophomore infielder Julia Jimenez hit one through the gap into left-center for a single. Immediately after, sophomore outfielder Lexi Voss clapped a ball hard to center field that bounced near the track and off the wall for a double. A quick cutoff prevented Jimenez from coming home from third, but sending Jimenez more than likely would have put a run on the board for the Wolverines, as the throw to home was off target.
It turned into a true missed opportunity when sophomore designated player Lauren Esman grounded out right back to Plain, stranding two in scoring position.
Then, it was immediately back to the battle between Plain and Storako.
“I think I gave my team every pitch.” Storako said. “I didn’t look forward, didn’t look behind me, and really just focused on my breath and keeping a refreshed mind with every pitch.
“I think that’s what I can give my team: every pitch, every inning, every game.”
Through five innings, neither team was able to break through, and Storako got nine of the 15 outs via strikeout.
Then, in the top of the sixth, the game changed.
Facing a 2-1 pitch with one out, Allan swung hard and connected well with the ball, sending it deep over the wall. The seal was broken.
In the next at-bat, senior third baseman Taylor Bump fought hard against Plain, working the count to 3-2. On the full-count pitch, she caught hold of it. The ball floated high and deep, hanging in the sky like the cottonwood fluff that permeated the air. At the wall, Washington left fielder Sami Reynolds jumped with her glove outstretched as the ball soared just inches above the leather — another home run, 2-0 Michigan.
“We’re all really good hitters, we know Gabbie Plain is a good pitcher,” Allan said, “But we knew that once we connected with the ball we were good to go.”
In the bottom of the frame — despite three Storako strikeouts — Washington answered. Catcher Morganne Flores joined in on the home run trend, knocking the ball into the light post that stood in left field and cutting the Wolverine lead to one.
In the top of the seventh, Plain was gone, replaced by right-hander Brooke Nelson. Despite advancing a runner to second — Thais Gonzalez pinch-running for Esman — Blair and the Wolverines failed to increase their lead, as Husky left-hander Pat Moore came into the game just to face Blair.
With the game in her hands, Storako stood in the circle.
“It could have been the second inning, it could have been the 20th inning, I had no idea what inning it was,” Storako said. “I just took a deep breath, looked at (pitching coach Jen Brundage) for my pitch and stepped on the rubber.”
The first batter bunted, the ball rolling back to Storako who calmly delivered the throw to first. One down.
The next batter caught in on the bat, popping out to first base. Two down, one away.
The third batter swung through on an 0-2 count — ballgame.