EVANSTON — Heading into Evanston for the first away series of Big Ten play, the No. 23 Michigan softball team sought to prove that it’s capable of competing with softball’s best.
Last weekend, the Wolverines were swept by Nebraska, and looked thoroughly unconfident.
On Friday, Michigan put up a fight, but were ultimately unable to beat the Big Ten’s current top team.
In a 3-4 defeat against No. 9 Northwestern (23-4 overall, 4-0 Big Ten), the Wolverines (19-10, 0-3) were unable to capitalize on an early lead as the bats dried up late. Even though Michigan entered the game with energy and a newfound sense of confidence, it was unable to convert it into a win.
After two quick strikeouts from Northwestern pitcher Danielle Williams in the top of the first, Graduate transfer outfielder Kristina Burkhardt injected some energy into an already excited dugout. Her bunt down the third base line turned into two bases when Williams overthrew first. Senior catcher Hannah Carson hit a soft grounder down the third baseline that scored Burkhardt with another Wildcat error.
The Wolverines added to their lead in the second, as senior third baseman Taylor Bump eked out a walk. Freshman outfielder Ellie SIeler hit the ball over the center fielder’s head for a standup double, advancing Bump to third. A called strike three on freshman shortstop Ella McVey brought up senior outfielder Lexie Blair with two outs. Blair perfectly found the hole between center and left, sending a one bouncer to the wall that scored both Bump and Sieler. The Wolverines found themselves up three early, and it seemed like they would cruise to a clean win.
But Northwestern cannot be counted out. As Michigan’s momentum and energy dried up, the Wildcats began to pick up steam.
In the bottom of the second, Northwestern finally put the bat on the ball, and in a major way. Infielder Maeve Nelson hit a towering homerun on a 2-2 pitch, cutting the lead to two. Storako settled back in though, and closed out the inning in short order.
The game’s frenetic pace then slowed down as both pitchers produced multiple scoreless innings. Both teams continued to make hard contact, but were unable to move the baserunners they generated.
In the bottom of the sixth, infielder Rachel Lewis broke the scoreless streak. Her solo homerun dropped the lead to one. Catcher Jordyn Rudd, on the very next at-bat, tied the game with another solo shot. Storako appeared to have lost her early-game form, but Michigan coach Carol Hutchins trusted her to persevere, and she remained in the game. She managed to get the first out of the inning with a deep flyout. She then threw a strikeout and coaxed a short flyout to escape the inning.
In the bottom of the seventh, after infielder Grace Nieto found her way onto first with a walk, Northwestern was threatening. Outfielder Skyler Shellmeyer, looking to capitalize, hit a hard fly ball to deep center. Blair tracked the fly ball to the warning track and was able to make an incredible grab, putting her body on the line and hitting the wall hard in the process. She was attended to by the medical staff and did not return. Storako was able to close out the inning cleanly, sending the game into extra innings.
The teams remained locked in a scoreless eighth inning, although both threatened to score in their halves.
Following a scoreless top of the ninth from Michigan, infielder Hannah Cady kicked off proceedings in the bottom of the inning with a standup double. The next batter, Lauren Caldrone, was hit by a pitch. Nieto’s bump attempt was thwarted by a diving grab by Bump, keeping the runners at first and second. Shellmeyer grounded out, but advanced both runners, bringing up Lewis. Lewis was walked in four pitches, bringing up Rudd with bases loaded. Rudd hit a chopper, and an errant throw to first ended the game.
Even though the Wolverines kept it close, they need more offensive production if they want to win games against elite competition. Michigan looked like an entirely different team than in the Nebraska series, but were still unable to put together a complete game.
The time for moral victories is over — the team needs a win against Big Ten competition, and soon.