The Mary Nutter Classic provided the No. 14 Michigan softball team with a chance to avenge its 2016 Women’s College World Series elimination loss to Florida State, but was barred from vengeance in one of the most obscure ways a softball game can end.
Due to a “drop dead travel time,” the top-ranked Seminoles left the California ballpark in the middle of the eighth inning to catch a flight back home. The Wolverines were not allowed their at-bats in the bottom of the inning, and the contest was ended in a 5-5 tie Sunday.
But unlike the conventional unsatisfaction that comes with draws, Michigan’s players viewed the result as a victory.
“We were just really excited about how we played that game,” said senior outfielder Kelly Christner. “We haven’t really seen that yet this season, and I think that was a break through game for us. So even though it ended in a tie and it was a strange way to end, I think it gave us more energy.”
Added senior right-hander Megan Betsa: “It wasn’t the way we wanted it to end, but it was a win for us.”
Michigan carried a 5-4 lead heading into top of the seventh inning, but an unsuccessful double-play attempt with the bases loaded led to a Florida State run. True to the pattern of the entire game, Betsa was successful in maneuvering through the reaming jam and struck out two Seminoles to end the frame. After a quiet bottom half, the affair went to extra innings.
Possibly due to the history between the opponents, it was Wolverines’ most intense game of the weekend. Seminole assistant coach Travis Wilson was ejected following a controversial out at the plate, when a throw up the line caused a collision between sophomore catcher Katie Alexander and a runner. After being plunked by a Betsa pitch, Florida State infielder Ellie Cooper appeared to take exception by walking a step towards the mound in the top of the fifth.
“It was awesome, it was intense — it was like a Super Regional,” said Michigan coach Carol Hutchins. “The coach getting ejected was meaningless because it was a clean play. The kids were so locked in.”
Betsa struggled with control the entire afternoon, hitting five batters — three of which came in the first inning to load the basses — and walking an additional four. But clutch strikeouts and effective pitching in jams led to a back-and-forth contest.
“I don’t like putting runners on base, but when I do, I settle in,” Betsa said. “I want someone to come to the plate because I think of it as ‘my plate.’ So when they’re runners on base, I just get into attack mode.”
Though the Wolverines needed to settle for a metaphorical victory against the Seminoles, they were able capture an official win later in the day, blanking No. 21 Arizona State, 3-0.
Junior right-hander Tera Blanco made her best start of the season, posting a scoreless six innings, three hits and five strikeouts. Besta — after pitching those eight innings earlier in the day — came in for the seventh frame and struck out the side.
“(Blanco’s) presence on the mound was unlike anything I’ve seen all season from her,” Betsa said. “She was doing a really good job of using her legs and keeping her composure.”
Offensively, Michigan received production from the second half of the order. Sophomore second baseman Faith Canfield smacked her third homerun of the last two weeks, while hitters five through eight collected four hits.
Friday’s game against New Mexico State combined the excitement and result of Sunday’s second half, as Kelly Christer launched a tape measure three-run blast to rally the Wolverines to a 5-4 victory.
Sophomore outfielder Natalie Peters and senior shortstop Abby Ramirez allowed for Christner’s multi-RBI chance — as they also did in the third inning, when Peters and Ramirez’s back-to-back hits preceded a two-run single.
Christner continued her tear to start the season, going 8-13 with eight RBI over the weekend.
“I see her having the time or her life,” Hutchins said. “Her confidence is fantastic for us.”
Also essential to the win was the effort in relief from Betsa, who pitched a scoreless final four innings after the starting Blanco was pulled following four early runs.
But on Saturday afternoon, things did not fall Betsa’s way. Despite her seemingly untouchable repertoire at times, No. 18 Texas A&M capitalized on Betsa’s few mistakes to push across three runs. Such were a fourth-inning walk that allowed for a two-run Aggie homer and a wild pitch that preceded a two-out RBI single.
The Wolverines were simply unable to find the same timely conversions. A baserunner never made it passed second Saturday afternoon against the dominant Trinity Harrington.
Michigan’s bats, however, would wake up later in the day to route Bethune Cookman, 13-4, in a mercy-rule decision.
Blanco was far from dominant despite facing a lowly offense — she gave up a three-run homer in the first inning — but did settle in to allow Betsa five innings of rest.
Coming into the season, a major concern for Michigan was finding second and third pitching options to round out the rotation behind Betsa. Hutchins selected Blanco and sophomore Leah Crockett to throw in fall exhibitions and winter bullpens, hoping to replace the work of former Michigan right-hander Sara Driesenga.
Giving up just six earned runs and striking out 31 batters in 21 innings, Betsa was her usual self over the weekend. New Mexico State nipped at the Wolverines’ achilles heel— Betsa was forced to relieve an ineffective Blanco — but the two combined Sunday to shut out a ranked opponent for the first time this season.
If Blanco can build upon the scoreless appearance, maybe the Wolverines will get another chance at Florida State — one that won’t be suddenly cut short — in Oklahoma City.