EAST LANSING — It was the top of the fourth inning, and another opportunity was about to slip away.
Leading off the inning in a scoreless tie, junior center fielder Natalie Peters had singled just past the shortstop. Then, a hard line drive off the bat of senior first baseman Tera Blanco dropped just inside the foul line for a double. The No. 14 Michigan softball team (16-2 Big Ten, 41-9 overall) was in business.
But a walk by junior catcher Katie Alexander was sandwiched by a popout and a strikeout, and suddenly there were two outs and still no runs and one last chance to make something out of the inning.
Sophomore left fielder Haley Hoogenraad took the first pitch she saw into right field for a single. Two runs scored, and instead of a wasted chance, the Wolverines had a rally. What had been a pitcher’s duel became a one-sided affair halted only by the run rule, as Michigan defeated Michigan State (7-11, 21-25), 8-0, in five innings.
Through the first three innings, the Wolverines and Spartans traded outs back and forth. At-bat after at-bat for Michigan resulted in a groundout. Michigan State struggled to muster even that — freshman left-hander Meghan Beaubien struck out four Spartans in the first three innings, and the lone baserunner she allowed was gunned down trying to steal second.
“(Beaubien) was efficient. She got ahead,” said Michigan coach Carol Hutchins. “ … She did a good job with managing the zone.”
With Beaubien keeping Michigan State locked down, all the Wolverines needed was a little offense. But timely hitting was something Michigan had struggled at times to find, and when second and third with no outs turned into bases loaded with two outs, it seemed it would escape the Wolverines once again.
Then Hoogenraad broke the stalemate.
“Haley really is kind of our silent assassin in a way,” Blanco said. “She always gets a clutch hit.”
And once Hoogenraad broke through, it didn’t take her teammates long to break the stalemate. Sophomore designated player Thais Gonzalez tacked on another run on an infield single to make the score 3-0.
After Beaubien set down the next three batters in order, Michigan kept riding its momentum. Junior second baseman Faith Canfield, Peters and Blanco loaded the bases on two singles and a walk. Sophomore third baseman Madison Uden singled Canfield and Peters home. Alexander lined a triple into the right field corner — scoring Blanco and Uden — and scored herself when the throw went into the dugout. By then, the score was 8-0.
“We basically attacked more, hit the first good one, and that really helped,” Blanco said. “ … And once one person gets a hit, and two hits in a row, it’s kind of contagious in that way.”
What a mere two innings earlier had been a tie game was now a blowout, and all Beaubien had to do was throw a scoreless bottom of the fifth to end the game and secure a run-rule victory.
The first two Spartans reached base, but Beaubien was unfazed. Two strikeouts and a fielder’s choice later, she sealed the deal.
“We started swinging better and making (the pitcher) put it in the zone and we connected and then we got going,” Hutchins said. “Once one connects, it kind of inspires — it takes the pressure off everybody.”