EAST LANSING — Exactly 50 days ago, the Michigan softball team got punched in the mouth.
In the first Big Ten series of the season, Nebraska came into Ann Arbor and swept the Wolverines in a doubleheader, putting them in an early hole in Big Ten play.
For the past 50 days, Michigan has grinded itself out of that hole. The Wolverines have battled through injuries, built momentum, and ridden a recent hot streak to set up a rematch with the Cornhuskers in the Big Ten Tournament championship game.
But on Saturday, Michigan could not get over the hump.
The 23rd-ranked Wolverines (36-16 overall, 16-9 Big Ten) fell to Nebraska (40-15, 20-5) for the third time, 3-1 in extra innings, letting a Big Ten Tournament championship slip away. Senior right-hander Alex Storako held the Huskers mostly dormant, but two clutch hits by second baseman Cam Ybarra was all Nebraska needed to defeat a sluggish Michigan offense.
“We just came up short,” Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said. “Our kids were great, they’ve been playing great ball. … So we just need to stay with it.”
With Storako on the mound, the top of the first inning went quickly, taking just 10 pitches to retire the side. But unfortunately for the Wolverines, Ybarra crushed one of those 10 balls over the right-field fence, giving the Huskers an early one-run lead.
Still, Storako remained composed. She cruised through the next four innings, limiting Nebraska to only one hit and punching out three. Instead of trying to just blow it past opposing batters — as she typically does — Storako instead relied more heavily on her offspeed pitches to keep the ball in the park.
“I thought (Storako) kept us in the game the whole way,” Hutchins said.
Outside of the one solo shot, the early innings played out like a traditional pitcher’s duel. And despite having multiple opportunities, the Michigan bats could not capitalize.
In both the first and fourth innings, the Wolverines put a runner on third with less than two outs. But both times, they failed to bring the run home.
After the slow start, though, the bats broke through to get the run back in the bottom of the fifth inning.
With one out, freshman utility player Annabelle Widra took a pitch to the head, reaching first base. Right-hander Olivia Ferrell induced a fly out for the second out, flipping the lineup card over for graduate outfielder Kristina Burkhardt — who already recorded two hits on the day. Ferrell elected to pitch around her, walking her and bringing junior outfielder Audrey LeClair up to the dish.
LeClair poked a ball over shortstop Billie Andrews’ head into left-center field for an RBI double. And though the Wolverine bats struggled to string anything else together, the game was knotted up at one.
But a controversial call halted Michigan’s hopes of a late-game rally.
After putting two runners on via the free pass in the seventh inning, LeClair grounded a ball to Ybarra who attempted to tag Burkhardt going to second before throwing to first base. The umpires called it a double play, and the inning ended with a pop-up on the next play.
“(Michigan associate head coach Bonnie Tholl) didn’t think she was tagged,” Hutchins said. “Burkhardt didn’t think she got tagged either. But they have to have indisputable evidence (to overturn it).”
With the momentum from that play on their side, the Huskers finally found success in extras.
Storako quickly recorded the first two outs of the eighth inning, but that brought up Andrews and the top of the Nebraska order. Storako pitched around Andrews, allowing her to reach base, bringing up Ybarra.
And Ybarra struck again.
She blasted a ball deep into the right-center gap, sending Andrews on a mad dash for home plate. Andrews slid into home unchallenged, and the Huskers took a one-run lead.
Then, Storako left a pitch over the plate to third baseman Sydney Gray, who singled to left field to bring Ybarra in as an insurance run and end Storako’s outing.
In the bottom of the inning, the Wolverines went down quietly. All three batters made hard contact, but none reached base, ending the game.
“We needed to get one out of the infield,” Hutchins said. “Period. That’s what we needed, and we didn’t get it done.”
Reaching the championship game and taking a Nebraska team that thoroughly outplayed it earlier this season to extra innings does demonstrate growth for Michigan.
But by falling to the Huskers once again, the Wolverines showed that they still have room to grow further.