EAST LANSING — Just over a month ago, the No. 23 Michigan softball team headed to Evanston, still looking for its first win in Big Ten play.
It was in the midst of a slump in which it had lost three of its last four games, and pressure was mounting. While the Wolverines did notch their first Big Ten win, they looked thoroughly outclassed in the first two games against Northwestern and left with a 1-4 record in the Big Ten.
That wouldn’t be the case against the Wildcats in the Big Ten Tournament.
In the semifinals, Michigan (35-15 overall, 14-8 Big Ten) defeated No. 11 Northwestern (39-9, 19-4), 2-1, after overcoming a botched intentional walk with clutch power hitting.
But before that momentary pitching lapse, both teams dominated from the mound. Fifth-year left-hander Meghan Beaubien got the start against the Wildcats, pitching more than two innings for the first time in her last four starts.
Again, Beaubien faced adversity early, as outfielder Rachel Lewis flashed her power and reached base in the bottom of the first before promptly stealing second. Catcher Jordyn Rudd then hit a ball to the wall, but graduate outfielder Kristina Burkhardt tracked it down for the out. Then she added another by throwing out Lewis, who hesitated before attempting to tag up.
While a hit by infielder Nikki Cuchran again put pressure on Beaubien in the second, she was able to escape cleanly.
“Meghan threw a lot of balls,” Hutchins said. “But she was able to keep them from squaring it up, because that’s their game, they like to square it up and hit it hard.”
Both Beaubien and left-hander Danielle Williams — the Big Ten Pitcher of the Year — kept the score locked heading into the fifth inning.
Beaubien’s control began to unravel in the bottom of the fifth, and Hutchins called freshman right-hander Annabelle Widra to replace her in the circle. Widra secured two quick outs, but she wasn’t in the clear just yet.
The Wolverines elected to intentionally walk Lewis, but a wild pitch on the last throw of the walk scored a runner for Northwestern. Rudd flew out two pitches later, but the damage was already done. Widra pitched a quality inning, but her mental lapse during a crucial intentional walk handed the Wildcats a late lead.
With only six outs to find the tying run, Michigan needed a spark. But even though Widra and Burkhardt made hard contact, they left the sixth without even finding a baserunner. Widra cleaned up in the sixth inning to give the Wolverines one more chance.
Then the rally began.
Williams was completely locked in, gathering two outs in short order. But senior catcher Hannah Carson kept Michigan’s hopes to win alive. She hit a looping fly ball to right field for a single, keeping Michigan alive.
Carson also gave fifth-year senior third baseman Taylor Bump one last at bat. On the third pitch, Bump launched a rocket over the left field wall, taking both the lead and momentum for the Wolverines.
“(Bump) is the best leader on the team and everyone on the team has so much confidence in her,” Widra said. “We know that she’s gonna get the job done so there’s nothing but excitement when she steps in the box.”
But even after Bump’s lead-securing hit, Widra still had to close out the win. She quickly grabbed two outs before the final one — a flyout from second baseman Grace Nieto — fell into Burkhardt’s glove. Rallying from Widra’s error, the Wolverines secured a spot in the Big Ten Championship.
“The key to the whole game is us holding them to one run,” Hutchins said. “Because that’s a powerful offensive team and we kept them in the park.”
Beaubien and Widra combined to hold the explosive Northwestern offense to only three total hits. But, that dominant performance could have come crashing down.
Widra, and the rest of the Wolverines, could have easily let the wild pitch affect their confidence — letting Northwestern coast to victory. Instead, Widra refocused and completed the game, and the bats made up for her brief lapse.
Emblematic of their grind up the Big Ten standings during the regular season, Michigan refused to let an early setback stop it. And this gritty mentality could continue to serve the Wolverines well as they continue their run in postseason play.