Seventeen innings played in a nine-hour span. Almost 300 pitches thrown. But in the end, the effort just left the Wolverines with two tallies in the loss column for the day.
Saturday was tough to swallow for the No. 6 Michigan softball team.
After winning their first two games at the USF Wilson-Demarini Tournament in Tampa, Fla., on Friday against Delaware and Illinois State, the Wolverines (3-2) dropped two straight Saturday. The first was a 2-1 defeat in 10 innings against No. 4 Florida, while the second was a 6-4 rout to No. 25 South Florida. A commanding 12-2 run-rule, bounce-back victory over St. John’s salvaged the weekend — marking the third win in five contests.
For Michigan coach Carol Hutchins, the losses are simply a sign of a young team still trying to develop their identity.
“I’m really not caught up in outcomes at this point in the year and I told a few of the upperclassmen, if you look at all the games, we were this close to being 5-0,” Hutchins said. “Both those games (Saturday) were ours to take, and we didn’t take them. But we were in them. And I said, if we were 5-0, I would feel exactly the same way I feel right now, which is that we have some growing to do as a team, and it starts to do with our trust and belief in ourselves and our trust and belief in our team.”
Against Florida — a familiar foe that’s had Michigan’s number for the past three years — the Wolverines fell in heartbreaking fashion in a game that can be marked down as another classic in the intense series.
A chess match from the outset, it was a pitcher’s duel at its finest. In one of her top career performances, senior right-hander Megan Betsa tossed 190 pitches, recorded 12 strikeouts, left 14 baserunners stranded and yielded just six hits in 10 innings pitched. Runs in the top and bottom of the fourth inning proved to be all the offenses could muster against both Betsa and Gator ace Kelly Barnhill. After seven innings, the game remained deadlocked at one.
In the extra stanzas, the momentum seemed to shift in Michigan’s favor. Back-to-back plays at the plate in the eighth thwarted Florida’s opportunities and preserved a 1-1 tie. With runners on second and third with one out, a fielder’s choice caught the runner at home off a throw from senior shortstop Abby Ramirez. A wild pitch during the ensuing at-bat led to sophomore catcher Alex Sobczak tracking the ball down and throwing it to Betsa for the tag.
But the Wolverine hurler failed to receive enough run support needed to squeeze out a victory. Even senior center fielder Kelly Christner’s 4-for-4 day at the plate wasn’t enough to crack the code. Playing under the international tiebreaker rules — each team begins extra innings with a runner on second base — Michigan stranded a runner on third in the eighth, ninth and 10th innings. The Gators finally got the best of Betsa with two outs in the tenth, a blooper to center field that scored the winning run.
Hutchins decided to let Betsa go the distance against Florida because, even after a slow start, the Wolverine ace found her stride and began to find the answer to the potent Gator lineup.
“She got better as the Florida game went on because she started competing and going after them and she started really attacking them,” Hutchins said. “It’s a really tough game to lose when the winning run was given to them by the (international tiebreaker) rule. But it’s the name of the game and we had our opportunities. We were the home team and … did not score.”
Christner’s offensive explosion against Florida was only part of her successful weekend. The senior captain led Michigan in batting average (.533) and hits (eight), including three doubles. Hutchins believes that after a slow start in the first two games, Christner rose to the occasion as both a force on and off the field.
“Friday, she wasn’t on her game and I was just really pleased with her turning it around on Saturday,” Hutchins said. “She really had both games, big performances, she stepped up, both physically, but really her mindset was, ‘We’re going after this guys.’ She really did everything she could to pick the team up and put them on her back.”
Following the narrow loss to the Gators, the Wolverines couldn’t recover against host South Florida in Saturday’s nightcap. After jumping to an early 3-0 lead that included a double from Ramirez and an RBI single from junior right-hander Tera Blanco, the Bulls outscored Michigan 6-1 the rest of the way, hitting a two-run inside-the-park home run in the third and scoring four more times in the sixth. In the top of the seventh, the Wolverines loaded the bases with one out, but a game-ending double play halted the comeback attempt.
Despite Saturday’s rough patch, Michigan found promise in its three season-opening tournament wins, including dominant showings Friday — 7-0 over Delaware and 4-2 over Illinois State.
The Wolverines’ sophomores led them offensively, with left fielder Courtney Richardson, second baseman Faith Canfield, right fielder Natalie Peters and Sobczak accounting for 12 of 19 hits and eight of 10 RBI on opening day.
The trio of Richardson, Canfield and Peters tallied consecutive hits in both the second and sixth against Delaware, igniting the Wolverines’ offense and widening the margin over the Blue Hens. Peters’ second-inning double, one of her three hits in the game, gave Michigan an early 1-0 lead, one it would never surrender. Hours later, Richardson — who went 3-for-4 against Delaware on Friday — launched a three-run home run against the Redbirds, which was ultimately the difference-maker in the contest.
Betsa fanned 15 Blue Hens in her final opening day as a Wolverine and Blanco added eight of her own against Illinois State, both pitchers throwing complete games. Betsa easily stifled Delaware rallies in the fourth, fifth and sixth innings, relinquishing a meager three hits and never allowing a runner past second base. Blanco tried to match her teammate, retiring seven straight batters after allowing a three-run Redbird home run.
Blanco again got the nod Sunday morning against St. John’s and received ample help from her offense from the first pitch of the game. The top of the lineup, featuring Peters, Canfield and Christner, contributed seven of 14 hits and five of 12 RBI. Christner added onto her successful weekend, going 3-for-4 with two RBI and two runs scored. Peters — who Hutchins deemed one of the “steadiest performers” from the weekend — continued her solid debut in her starting lead-off role, going 2-for-3 with a run and one RBI, while also showcasing strong defensive play in the outfield. After just five innings played, Michigan won 12-2 via the run-rule.
Coming into Sunday and turning out such a dominant performance was evidence of a Wolverine team that faces adversity with apparent ease.
“I think (Saturday) obviously was a very hard day, two pretty tight losses, long games, got to sleep late and had to wake up early, but I think we came out (Sunday) and we all had a lot of energy and wanted to help out the pitchers,” Christner said. “And just the fact that we were able to score runs every inning and help our pitchers out just showed that after any loss, we’re stronger than before.”
Right-hander Leah Crockett earned her first pitching prospect of the season against the Red Storm, relieving Blanco after three innings to finish the rest of game. The sophomore gave up two runs over two innings but successfully pitched out of a jam in the fourth, leaving runners on first and third.
Even with tough defeats at the hands of ranked opponents, Hutchins and her team are looking to move past the losses and focus on improving certain technical skills on both offense and defense before next weekend’s ACC/Big Ten Challenge in Raleigh, N.C.
“It starts to do with our trust and belief in ourselves and our trust and belief in our team,” Hutchins said. “… We have to do a better job of uniting as a group in our mindset, and our mindset has to be what our process statements are, which are one pitch and trust, trust your pitch, trust your process. We’re not very good at that yet and we’ve got some mechanical things as well that we will continue to work at and I expect we’ll get a lot better.”
Saturday was tough to swallow for the sixth-ranked Wolverines. But learning from mistakes from the opening weekend will be crucial for a young team looking to assert its long-standing identity as one of the most elite teams in the nation.