In the final stretch of a season, it’s always a good thing to leave your home fans with motivation to keep coming back.
That was the case on Sunday as the Michigan softball team (31-15 overall, 11-8 Big Ten) turned the page following two games filled with question marks to close out their time at Alumni Field on a high note, as they defeated Minnesota (22-22-1, 7-11) 8-4.
The Wolverines wasted no time establishing a strong tone, showing up at the plate in a way that they hadn’t in the first two games of the series. The bottom of the first was highlighted by a hard-hit double to left center from graduate second baseman Melina Livingston which brought home junior outfielder Audrey LeClair and fifth-year third baseman Taylor Bump from their single and walk, respectively. This gave Michigan a valuable 2-0 lead early.
Though they did not find the scoreboard in the second, the Wolverines were still very active with their bats. A single from sophomore catcher Keke Tholl and sacrifice bunt from freshman shortstop Ella McVey kept them threatening in scoring position.
The scoring followed suit in the third, as a solo shot to deep center from senior first baseman Lexie Blair in the next inning extended the lead to three runs.
One inning later, the Gophers’ bats began to connect. Though an athletic throw from LeClair and a clutch strikeout from senior right-hander Alex Storako prevented significant damage, a sacrifice fly out from outfielder Mackenzie Denton scored outfielder Natalie DenHartog to make it a 3-1 game.
This provided Michigan with an opportunity to slip back into the unresponsive ways they exhibited on Friday and Saturday, but on Sunday, the Wolverines prevailed. A double from junior designated player Lexi Voss and single from McVey kept the pressure on Minnesota to generate more scoring.
“We were letting a lot of strikes go by,” Blair said in reference to the previous days. “So the main plan was to drive at the first level pitch and I think we did a pretty good job of doing that and just focusing on that game plan. I feel like the first day … I think we were just too much in our head, trying to be selective for pitches, guessing, things like that. And I think we always just have a shift of energy for the next few games, we know how to address. I think that’s where we bounce off from there.”
But the Gophers responded. A two-run blast high into the outfield bleachers from utility player Chloe Evans tied the game, and a left-center solo bomb from DenHartog on the very next pitch would shift the score into the hands of Minnesota.
On Sunday though, the deficit was not detrimental to the Wolverines’ bats. A single from Voss to center field and a throwing error gave Michigan extra bases and scored sophomore utility player Sierra Kersten to tie it back up. Then, a three-run homer from Tholl propelled the Wolverines to a 7-4 lead.
“To me the hero of the game was Voss,” Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said. “She’s had only pinch-hit opportunities, and we want to reward the fact that this kid has worked so hard and she has also shown so much encouraging signs. And I wanted to give her more than one at-bat because sometimes one at-bat each game is tough — as you saw her first at-bat she struck out, but then she hit a double, and she hit a really big single.”
From there, the Wolverines locked in — both on the mound and at the plate. Following another one-two-three inning from Storako in the sixth, the Wolverines hit another home run, this time from graduate outfielder Kristina Burkhardt.
This was Burkhardt’s first long ball of the season, a deceiving feat considering her role as Michigan’s lead hitter all year.
“I know she can hit it out and I’ve kind of played with her a little bit about ‘when are you going to hit it over the fence?’ ” Hutchins said. “She’s struggled a bit this series and I thought before that last at-bat, just show them how happy you are to be a Michigan woman, and then boom. So I was happy to see it and we needed it.”
In a way, Burkhardt’s first home run was emblematic of the Wolverines’ day at the plate as a whole. They have given several glimpses of their potential to score runs through the occasional offensive explosion, but have never been able to build on that production to substantiate it.
Today, in front of the last crowd at Alumni Field this year, it just came together.