BLOOMINGTON — In the quarterfinal of the Big Ten Tournament, the Michigan softball team found itself in a battle of the defenses.
The top seeded Wolverines (40-11 overall, 22-1 Big Ten) edged out No. 9 seed Illinois 1-0 (32-21, 9-14), 1-0 in extra innings.
In their prior matchup — a series in mid-April — Illinois gave Michigan a run for its money. While the Wolverines came out on top in all three contests, two of the games came down to a single run, challenging Michigan’s position at the top of the conference. The Fighting Illini gave them another challenge in their first game of the postseason.
Freshman right-hander Alex Storako struggled against the Fighting Illini last month but was given a shot at redemption when she started in the circle.
In the early innings, Storako took the opportunity in stride, ending the first by retiring three batters consecutively.
While the Wolverines’ bats were hot the last time they faced Illinois, neither team got on the scoreboard until the eighth inning.
“You have to be in your moment,” said Michigan coach Carol Hutchins. “We got 16 runs last time we played (Illinois). That’s where we were at. If we thought it was going to be easy, then we’re not on page because every game for the rest of this year is going to be really difficult. Runs are going to be harder to come by, and the pitchers are going to need to do what they did today which is help us win.”
In the first few innings, Michigan failed to find its footing against Illinois right-hander Taylor Edwards, it’s batters falling one after the next.
Senior catcher Katie Alexander changed that in the bottom of the second inning. Facing two outs and a full count, Alexander took a big swing. Power isn’t anything new for the catcher— she’s hit 10 home runs in her senior season. This time, Alexander’s ball didn’t clear the fence but fell deep into center field for a double. While the hit didn’t translate into a run, it lit the spark for the offense.
Back at the top of the lineup in the following inning, senior second baseman Faith Canfield hit a leadoff infield single. Next at-bat, senior outfielder Natalie Peters filed a ball to left field where the Fighting Illini shortstop failed to complete a diving catch, leaving Peters safe at first. But the Wolverines couldn’t translate this surge into a score when a double play ended the inning scoreless.
While Illinois possessed the highest batting average in the Big Ten, it couldn’t seem to find its rhythm against Storako. The Fighting Illini’s bats frequently made contact with the ball, but most ended up as fly outs easily caught by Michigan’s outfield.
Throughout the game, the outfield anchored the Wolverines defense. Illinois sent several balls deep into center field, but Peters was always ready to catch them.
“Communication is a huge thing (for the outfield),” said freshman outfielder Lexie Blair. “Our outfield has great range. Especially with (Rodriguez), we’ve been working on communication with each other on where we’re going to play, who’s going to get what ball, little things before each pitch.”
The first registered hit for the Fighting Illini came in the fourth when a pair of singles put them on first and third with two outs — a precarious position for Storako. After a meeting in the circle with assistant coach Jennifer Brundage, the freshman got out of the jam with a decisive strikeout.
Michigan remained persistent at the plate the following inning. After a single by junior third baseman Madison Uden, senior designated player Mackenzie Nemitz fired a ball straight into Edwards’ glove. As Nemitz ran to first and Uden to second, Edwards threw the ball to second where it bounced out of the baseman’s glove, leaving both of the Wolverines safe. Back at the plate, Alexander sent a ball straight along the third baseline to load the bases.
Press rewind; press play. Michigan failed to bring the runners home. The inning was ended by a double play — the game still scoreless.
After advancing a runner to first on a hit batsman, Storako left the circle in favor of sophomore left-hander Meghan Beaubien. With runners on first and second and two outs, the Wolverines found themselves in another tight spot. Then, a Fighting Illini drilled a ball between second and third base, but sophomore short stop Natalia Rodriguez snagged it from the air, saving the Wolverines from at least a one-run deficit.
In the top of the fifth, Peters was walked for the second time and took the opportunity once again to steal second. After Blair — who leads the lineup in batting average — was intentionally walked, the Wolverines were again in scoring position. But senior first baseman Alex Sobczak, another offensive standout, hit a groundout to end the inning.
In the later innings, Michigan got on base here and there but continued to struggle stringing hits together.
“We had a lot of runners we left on base,” Hutchins said. “We had poor swings.”
Beaubien, the 2018 Big Ten Pitcher of the Year and Freshman of the Year, shut the Fighting Illini down quickly the very next inning with two consecutive strikeouts.
Her command in the circle was even more evident in the seventh when the Wolverines found themselves in another jam. With two outs and runners on second and third in the seventh inning, it looked like the Wolverines’ tournament run might be over.
The batter hit foul after foul, extending the at-bat, and after the eleventh pitch, the count was full. On the twelfth, the ball was popped up into foul territory where it was caught by Alexander to get the Wolverines out of yet another tight inning.
Beaubien’s discipline fired up the dugout as all the players started chants with the crowd. But that energy wasn’t enough.
The bottom of the inning ended quickly with a fly out and two groundouts, sending the game into extra innings with no one on the scoreboard.
Beaubien’s dominance continued through the eighth inning as she retired three batters in a row.
“Meghan coming in and shutting them down when they could have scored is pretty huge,” Blair said. “Also, other people stepping up and getting base hits when we need them to.”
But it wasn’t another’s base hit that won the game for the Wolverines. It was Blair’s.
The pressure mounted in Andy Mohr Field as the Wolverines found themselves in the bottom of the eighth inning, but Blair maintained her composure as she walked up to the plate. With one strike against her, the freshman fired a ball over the center field wall, ending the game in walk-off style.