A night after beating Penn State in walk-off fashion, the No. 22 Michigan softball team needed no such magic on Saturday.
Junior third baseman Madison Uden put an exclamation point on Friday night’s series opener with a game-deciding home run in the bottom of the seventh inning. On Saturday, it took just three pitches for senior second baseman Faith Canfield to slug one of her own. Canfield’s eighth homer of the season gave the Wolverines (36-11 overall, 18-1 Big Ten) an early jolt, propelling them to an eventual 8-0 run-rule victory over the Nittany Lions (23-28, 6-13).
After watching Canfield’s home run trot, Michigan’s outfield corps led the remainder of the first-inning charge. Senior center fielder Natalie Peters laced a single up the middle and freshman left fielder Lexie Blair worked a five-pitch walk, setting the stage for junior right fielder Haley Hoogenraad. After fouling a pair of pitches into the stands, Hoogenraad’s bloop single into center field plated Blair, giving the Wolverines a 3-0 edge.
For Hoogenraad, the RBI single couldn’t have come at a better time. She had mustered just three hits across 21 at-bats in Michigan’s last seven games.
“(Hoogenraad) works hard,” Blair said. “You see it everyday at practice and it’s starting to pick up a little bit for her. I’m happy to see her get those RBI because that’s what she’s been waiting for. She needs to stay in her moment a little more, that’s where she does well. She’s just a really great teammate to watch play. I’m excited for her success every time.”
An inning later, the Wolverines’ plate discipline paid off. Canfield drew a walk of her own after sophomore shortstop Natalia Rodriguez’s 11-pitch battle ended in the same result. From there, Michigan coach Carol Hutchins played small ball. Peters laid down a bunt to move each runner up 60 feet, which allowed Blair to bring Rodriguez home with a sacrifice fly to right field — her team-high 46th RBI of the season.
After failing to score in the third frame, the Wolverines tacked on four runs in the fourth. They didn’t have to work nearly as hard to do so, though, as Penn State right-hander Kylee Lingenfelter struggled to find the strike zone. With the bases loaded, she issued a pair of walks to Uden and senior first baseman Alex Sobczak to make it 7-0. Senior designated player Kenzie Nemitz’s ground ball gave the Nittany Lions their first out of the inning a batter later, but not before it scored Michigan’s eighth run of the game, bringing the run rule into effect.
When the dust settled, Michigan’s balanced offensive attack stood out. Seven of the Wolverines’ nine starters collected at least one RBI on the afternoon — a true sign of strength throughout the lineup.
In the circle, freshman right-hander Alex Storako dominated. After surrendering a leadoff single to begin the afternoon, she retired 15 straight batters — nine of which came via the strikeout — en route to her 12th win of the season.
“I was able to use every pitch I have,” Storako said. “That really helped me when my rise ball wasn’t working as well because I was able to rely on other pitches. That led to the greatest success. I haven’t been able to do that in the past and I think that came in really handy today. Another factor was being able to make adjustments pitch by pitch and doing it after the first mistake.”
For the first time this season, Storako threw a complete game without allowing a walk. Hutchins remembers sitting down with her freshman to discuss such goals a few weeks ago.
“The no-hitter is not what I’m interested in,” Hutchins recalled telling Storako. “I’m more interested in the no-walker.”
Storako’s ability to go the distance served a dual purpose: It marked personal improvement and gave sophomore left-hander Meghan Beaubien, who has hurled more than half of the team’s innings this season, a full day of rest after getting tagged for five runs in the series opener.
Storako is the eighth Wolverine pitcher to win at least 10 decisions as a freshman in the last two decades. For Michigan, the milestone is a tell-tale sign of potential. The other seven went on to earn All-American honors.
“(Storako) is showing herself in this half of the season,” Hutchins said. “She’s getting better. She’s giving us more innings, and (they are) really quality innings. She’s been a little inconsistent but she’s really turned a good corner. We need her, we need a (pitching) staff.
“(Storako) and Meghan are just two opposite pitchers, so it couldn’t be more perfect.”