The sun gleamed radiantly over Alumni Field Friday afternoon. The sold out crowd — mostly donning maize and blue — filled the bleachers with an exuberance and sound unparalleled to that of any regular season game.
It was the quarterfinal round of the Big Ten Tournament, and the No. 2-seeded Michigan softball team was facing Michigan State. While the seventh-seeded Spartans had eked past No. 10-seed Indiana just the day before, with an 8-7 victory, the Wolverines’ ranking had earned them a bye in the first round of the tournament.
Entering the game, the possibility of a No.1-seed Minnesota and Michigan tournament championship rematch lingered. After all, they were the top two teams in the conference and Michigan had so far seen a perfect home record on the season.
The Wolverines had all the odds stacked in their favor. But when it came down to it, these odds meant nothing if they couldn’t outplay their in-state foe.
Michigan — who had seen two tight victories over the Spartans during the regular season — found itself in another nail-bitter. But this time, things didn’t go its way.
Despite carrying a 4-2 lead into the seventh inning, the Wolverines (20-4 Big Ten, 41-11-1 overall) fell heartbreakingly, 5-4, to Michigan State (13-12, 31-21), abruptly halting their tournament run. The loss marked the first time since 2009 that Michigan was defeated by the Spartans and put an end to the Wolverines’ 36 home-game win streak.
“You have to congratulate Michigan State, Jacquie Joseph, for one outstanding game and tournament,” said Michigan coach Carol Hutchins. “And I’ve said it before when we played them in April, it’s such an improved program and they’re going in such a great direction and, you know, they got it done tonight.”
While the game highlighted many of the Spartans’ strongest assets — outhitting one of the top teams in the nation eight to seven — Michigan’s performance largely reflected struggles it has seen on and off all season.
The Wolverines reverted to where they had been prior to the Wisconsin series — largely unable to produce at the plate. Only five players had hits all day. Michigan was scoreless until the bottom of the fourth inning. Even when the Wolverines took a 4-2 lead in the fifth, their performance was still off — they were not outplaying Michigan State.
Even ace right-hander Megan Betsa did not look like her usual dominant self, walking four batters while fanning just six. This was her lowest strikeout count in a seven-inning game this season. Betsa, who has had the pressure of saving her team all season, was unable to fulfil that unreasonable task Friday.
“Megan is one of the best pitchers in the country and even great players have bad days,” Hutchins said. “I didn’t think she had a good day, but the key is in life, you have to recover from your adversity and you only control what you control. And nobody knows that better than Megan. I expect she’ll rebound.
“I think typically things start here (points to head) and then they affect your mechanics. Whether you’re trying too hard, whether you’re trying to be perfect, whether you’re like “Wow, you’re a good hitter, I better throw around her,” I’m not in her head, but I didn’t think she was herself tonight and I think she can throw better than she threw.”
From the start, Michigan wasn’t on top of its game. The Spartans even took the first lead.
Coming out of the gates in attack mode in the third inning, Michigan State smacked a leadoff single followed by an RBI double from outfielder Lea Foerster. Still with no outs on the board, the Spartans sent a sacrifice fly to left field, widening the gap to 2-0.
The Wolverines fired back the next inning, with sophomore second baseman Faith Canfield and junior right fielder Aidan Falk knocking back to back singles to start the inning. Freshman designated player Madison Uden pounded a sacrifice fly to left field, earning Michigan its first run.
With two outs, senior third baseman Lindsay Montemarano punched a single up the middle, plating junior pinch runner Nikki Wald to tie up the game, 2-2. The crowd erupted in cheers and rose to its feet.
In the bottom of the fifth, the Wolverines gained the first and only lead they would see all game. Canfield sent a hard single to the left field line which brought two runners home, putting Michigan up, 4-2.
But though they were ahead, the Wolverines still weren’t comfortable.
“The whole game had been a battle,” Canfield said. “It was nice having a two-run lead, but obviously it wasn’t enough and I wasn’t comfortable.”
And they shouldn’t have been comfortable. The Spartans collected three additional runs in the last inning of the game, in a final rally that Michigan was unable to respond to. And when the last Wolverine batter was called out, Michigan was left with a sour taste in its mouth, taking an unexpected loss to a major rival.
But the Wolverines’ season is still not over yet. Two days from now is the NCAA Selection Show, and Michigan will be placed in a regional with the chance to move on from its loss.
And with results like these — unforeseen and unfortunate — it is more important than ever that Michigan moves on, though no longer in the tournament, with strength and confidence. And the team believes it will be able to do so.
“I’m extremely confident we can hold it together,” Montemarano said. “At the end of the day, this is an extremely tough loss and we set higher expectations for ourselves. But at the end of the day, we know we have more pitches left.”