Outstretched and tumbling, Thais Gonzalez dove to tap home just as the Michigan State catcher reeled in the ball and flew toward her in a desperate attempt to get her out.
By the slimmest of margins, Gonzalez was safe.
The No. 17 Michigan softball team was then tasked with protecting the lead in an otherwise offensively-lacking day. Where the offense failed, the defense thrived, as the Wolverines won, 1-0.
“We’re not swinging real well right now,” said Michigan coach Carol Hutchins. “I can’t tell you why, but yesterday, I didn’t think we swung well, and we didn’t swing well tonight. And I think we allowed the opposing pitcher to get in our heads a little bit.
“So as a coach, your job is to find another way to get it done, and that’s what we did today. And I knew it was going to be a defensive game, and I was not at all surprised that it was a close game and a low-scoring game.”
The Wolverines put on a clinic defensively, making plays when they needed to be made. Junior catcher Katie Alexander and freshman left-hander Meghan Beaubien understood this and played their roles to perfection.
With one out and a runner on first in the top of the second, Beaubien baited the Michigan State batter into swinging with two consecutive rising fast balls, striking her out on a full count. Without a second of hesitation, Alexander rose after catching the final strike and threw a bullet to freshman shortstop Natalia Rodriguez to catch the runner attempting to steal second. With no margin for error, Rodriguez tagged the Spartan to end the inning.
Later, with two outs in the top of the sixth inning, Rodriguez threw a rapid, aimless ball to senior first baseman Tera Blanco in hopes of preventing a base hit. It flew nowhere near Blanco and looked due to give extra bases.
However, Alexander, in a fundamentally sound play, trailed the baserunner and stayed close to the dugout so that she would be ready for a play like that.
“Every single time there’s a play in the infield, the catchers follow,” Alexander said. “It’s just a routine play. Not all, we don’t throw the ball away a lot, but to be ready for it to actually happen, it just shows that we practice it, so just to be ready for it was cool.”
Not only did Alexander assist the defense with plays in the field, but she helped Beaubien on the mound as well mentally. Right after her extra-base-saving play, Alexander met with Hutchins and Beaubien on the mound. They needed to calm the freshman’s nerves.
“Tonight, she told me, ‘You were born to do this.’ ” Beaubien said. “And I thought that was really cool, because like, I’ve wanted to be here for so long, and she was just like, ‘Hey, you love this. You want to do this.’ And then you kinda remember, like, ‘Oh yeah, I do,’ and it kinda gets you back in the right mindset. So she’s awesome at knowing what to say at the right time.”
Despite the inconsistency, Beaubien still performed at an elite level, recording a shutout. Up until being met at the mound for a conference, she had only allowed two hits and proceeded to close out the game, throwing a groundout and a line out in the final inning before striking out the last batter. While she loaded the counts on more at-bats than usual, she found ways to strike out the batter in many situations — finishing the game with seven strikeouts.
On the offensive end, nothing Michigan tried was effective. Until it was.
After three scoreless innings — one of which had an error the Wolverines couldn’t exploit — Michigan found its first run in a hustle play by Gonzalez. Alexander found first on a fielder’s choice, and Gonzalez got the nod from Hutchins to do her role: pinch running.
When her time came, the sophomore went without hesitation. Freshman designated player Lou Allan reached first, soon followed by a bunt by sophomore third baseman Madison Uden to advance the bases. Gonzalez was then pushed into the role of designated pinch runner for Allan. On a ground ball up the middle that resulted in a fielder’s-choice out at first, Gonzalez kept running around third toward home. Recollecting themselves, the Spartans threw the ball home. But it was too late.
With a wrap-around touch of home base, Gonzalez scored the only run of the game.
The remaining innings turned into fruitless attempts to add to the lead, however.
Stranding six runners on base and recording just six hits all game, the Wolverines failed to find an offensive rhythm for a second game in a row.
But it didn’t matter. With a slim lead and an impenetrable defense, Michigan did what it needed, even if it took a low-percentage play to do so.