ORLANDO, Fla. — Fifth-year third baseman Taylor Bump approached the plate in the bottom of the fifth with a golden opportunity to reprise the clutch heroics that defined her play in the past month.
Graduate center fielder Kristina Burkhardt and senior outfielder Lexie Blair waited on second and third. With Central Florida’s lead — which at one point had been five runs — cut to 5-3 at the time, and senior catcher Hannah Carson fanning on a third strike with one out, it all came down to Bump to represent the go-ahead run as chances waned for the top of Michigan’s order.
Down to her last strike, Bump swung at a hittable pitch and made contact. This time, it didn’t have the distance it needed, and Knights second baseman Justene Molina made the easy catch.
Back into the Orlando sun went senior right-hander Alex Storako and the Wolverines’ fielders.
Against UCF in Sunday’s regional final, it may have felt like Michigan lost the game in a troublesome first inning, but that wasn’t truly the case. If fewer runners were stranded on base, the Wolverines could have turned the page on the tumultuous start — and possibly catalyze yet another comeback win.
Their inability to do so, however, let those moments linger in their season-ending loss.
The first big opportunity came in the third inning. Michigan scored its first two runs at this point, but threatened to bring in more. A grounder from junior right fielder Audrey LeClair and a walk from Blair put runners on first and third base with one out. With a 5-2 deficit, Carson stepped into the batter’s box as the go-ahead run.
But she couldn’t come through, popping out to the UCF infield. Bump followed it with a strikeout to end the inning.
Given that three of the Knights’ runs were forced in by walks in the top of the first, the preserved three-run deficit loomed large.
“I thought we gave too much in the first inning,” Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said. “Too many outs were given away, and you just can’t let that momentum build up.”
Though nearly every player in the Wolverines’ batting order had their exceptional moments at some point this season, its recent surge of come-from-behind wins was anchored by its first five batters — most memorably with Bump’s pair of game-winning blasts.
Especially in the more lengthy comebacks, that hitting usually became contagious, spreading throughout the lineup. But in Sunday’s finale, it was isolated in a way that the Knights could survive with.
The top of the Wolverines’ lineup ultimately got one final opportunity in the seventh, and they had initial success once again. This time, Bump found full contact for a single and brought LeClair home for a run. Again, this put multiple runners on base with only one gone.
But by that point UCF had scored four more, and the game was all but put away. It was simply too little, too late. Two groundouts later, and the fate was sealed.
“I think they gave it what they had,” Hutchins said. “And we fell short.”
A lot happens in a game, and early mistakes can be forgotten rather quickly. Unfortunately for Michigan, they didn’t make enough happen to move on.