It only takes one mistake, one unlucky bounce, one second of regret to determine the outcome of a game — and the No. 14 Michigan softball team (17-2 Big Ten, 42-9 overall) had plenty of each against Ohio State (13-7 Big Ten, 33-12 overall) on Friday.
But fortunately for the Wolverines, their mistakes didn’t cost them because the team forced the Buckeyes to make plenty of mistakes of their own.
In a 3-2 decision, Michigan ground out a win against the Buckeyes in the first game of its three-game series. It took all the grit and patience the team could afford to fend off the lingering attacks by Ohio State.
In every sense, it was a pitchers’ battle. Freshman left-hander Meghan Beaubien and the Buckeyes’ starter Shelby Combs mirrored each other with elite play in the early innings. Beaubien opened with a three-up-three-down inning, drawing easy line drives and whiffs on her changeup.
However, it was monkey-see-monkey-do for Combs, as she repeated the feat of a quick three-up-three-down inning with ease, taking away the little momentum built by Beaubien.
Then the mistakes crept in. In the otherwise dominant showing on the mound by Beaubien, out of the 108 pitches she threw, three of them were bad throws. But in a defensive game where every run counts, those three threatened to be the decisive difference.
At the top of the second inning, Beaubien stood helpless as the lead-off batter hit a no-doubter home run past the fences and deep into the stands. Not letting the rare mistake get to her, Beaubien came back with a strong showing to limit the damage.
And then it was Combs’ turn to be exploited by the opposing team’s offense. After a quick pop out and flyout to start the bottom of the second, senior outfielder Aidan Falk cocked back her bat on a 3-1 count. With patience at the plate, she held her swing on the low and away ball to gain first base. It was through that walk that Michigan found its first run.
In spite of the two outs threatening to strand bases — a recurring problem in their last few games — senior designated hitter Taylor Swearingen went fearlessly through her at-bat, resulting in a single down the line in left field.
Up to the plate stepped outfielder Haley Hoogenraad who has made offensive strides over the course of the season. Going down two strikes early, the sophomore refused to be discouraged and only focused on getting the hit rather than the potential out.
“I think the biggest thing is before the game, (Michigan coach Carol Hutchins) kept saying, ‘You got three strikes. You got three strikes. You have three swings. Get all three of your swings.’ ” Hoogenraad said. “And I think that was the first thing that flashed through my mind as soon as I got the the two strikes, I was like, ‘I still have one more strike. This isn’t done yet, I’m not going to let it beat me.’ ”
Instead of letting the pitch beat her, Hoogenraad took initiative after finding the one she liked. With two balls and two strikes, she hit a single — nearly identical to Swearingen’s — down the left field line that was centimeters from going foul. In the end, the ball remained in play and sent Falk dashing toward home to tie the game at one.
Hoogenraad also contributed to the string of mishaps by the Wolverines, however. At the bottom of the fourth, the team loaded the bases off of three walks by the Ohio State pitcher. On second base, Hoogenaad saw junior outfielder Natalie Peters' slapshot face on as Peters’ hit drove straight through shortstop and looked primed to enable two runs home. In an unlucky turn of events, the ball hit Hoogenraad’s leg, and due to interference, the play was ruled an out — ending the inning.
“That ball was hit hard,” Hutchins said. “She needs to stop and let it get through. You can’t just run hard, I mean, that was huge. That’s two runs right there. She’s going to score on it.
The ill-fated robbery of runs left Michigan in high suspense. Just as they had previously, the Buckeyes capitalized on another poorly thrown pitch by Beaubien which led to a home run. Yet despite giving up two long balls, the freshman remained poised as she prevented any other scoring threat from coming into fruition.
“Our defense held them,” Hutchins said. “The key is, they’re going to hit home runs. That’s what they do. We just need to keep them off base, so that when they hit them, there’s nobody on base.”
She later added: “I said it before, (Beaubien) kept runners off base, they only had one other runner on base. In the seventh inning, that was the only runner they had on base. I think that’s a hell of a performance.”
With the defense compact, the focus shifted to offense. In the bottom of the fifth, senior first baseman Tera Blanco looked to make the play that would revitalize the spirits of the Wolverine batters.
She did just that.
With a speedy line drive down to no-man’s land near first base, the first baseman and second baseman could only stare in confusion as Blanco stepped safely onto first after they had fumbled the ball and miscommunicated about who would cover first.
After senior designated player Nikki Wald substituted in for Blanco, sophomore third baseman Madison Uden riled up the crowd with a double to left center field. But just as quickly as they came, the cheers disappeared. Junior catcher Katie Alexander had hit a line drive straight to third for a first-pitch out.
After the bases were loaded on another Falk walk, Swearingen made her way to the plate again, hoping to recreate the offensive magic she had displayed earlier. However, after a 2-2 count, she swung on a pitch that sent confusion and anger throughout the stadium. Initially ruled a foul, the umpires looked around toward the players who had played through call.
Wald had made her way halfway to home before turning for a slow retreat back to her respective base — third base — as had others who treated the call like a foul. It was then that the umpires had a brief conference before changing the call to a strike by swinging.
The regret for the Wolverines was that if Wald had made her way to home — a routine they practice, foul or not — the team would have scored a run.
“I expected her to go,” Hutchins said on Wald not going the full distance. “The ball was at the backstop. Her job is to go, her job isn’t to ump.”
Added Canfield: “It’s definitely a tough situation. I think, regardless of what the call was, we needed to be running home on it, but we didn’t let it affect us. We didn’t let it change the momentum of the game. We stayed right up regardless of the call, and we took it in our own hands.”
In the very next at-bat, Haley Hoogenraad showed once again her much improved offensive capabilities. This time, instead of contact, she showed her growth in her patience at the plate.
“I think my patience at the plate is something I’ve really been trying to work on because it’s something that I’ve struggled with … so I think having my teammates behind me and knowing that they’re in the dugout cheering me on really helped me to lock in and wait for my pitch.”
Checking her swing on the full count, she brushed aside Wald’s early mistake by walking in the game-tying run. However, Michigan continued to cash in on the shaky pitching of the newly substituted pitcher for Ohio State. Freshman designated player Lou Allan hit a shallow ball to shortstop, but it was just enough for a single that advanced everyone a base and gave Michigan the lead.
With Beaubien at the mound the remainder of the innings, the Wolverines trusted her to close out the game and maintain the slim lead. And she didn’t disappoint.
For Michigan, the glaring problem that arose from the game was the 11 base runners stranded. What was a small inconvenience in the team’s blowout wins became a conspicuous weakness that could have proved costly if not for the mistakes and unsteady defensive performances of the Buckeyes.
While they stranded runners, the Wolverines also showed they could just as easily adapt with needed. All of the runs scored by Michigan were with two outs, showing the aggressiveness the team plays with at the plate no matter the circumstance.
Through unlucky bounces and uncharacteristic blunders, the Wolverines showed that though luck and situations aren’t always in their favor, the team can provide just enough to take the game away.