Sarah Schaefer’s “K Counter” had five birthday cakes.
Every game, the Michigan softball team’s Twitter account tweets out a strikeout counter for the day’s pitcher using one emoji for each strikeout. Sometimes, it’ll be robots. Other times, it’s fist bumps. But Sunday wasn’t just any day for the freshman right-hander. It was her birthday, and the K Counter had the emojis to match.
At the Miami Invitational on Saturday and Sunday, senior right-hander Tera Blanco — the Wolverines’ usual No. 2 starter — never took the mound, which meant it was Schaefer’s time to shine.
On Saturday against Dayton, Schaefer — who has a 1.45 ERA on the season but averages just under three innings per appearance — got the start in the circle. There, the freshman right-hander dazzled, allowing just three hits and no walks with six strikeouts in Michigan’s 7-0 win. She earned not only the first complete-game shutout of her college career, but also her first win.
“It felt great to get a win for my team,” Schaefer said, “and the shutout was even better.”
That night, Schaefer brought cupcakes to the team’s hotel for the team to share. Sunday morning, she hung out with her parents in the hotel and posed for a photo with a wood cutout of a cake. But the best birthday present was still to come.
Before Schaefer threw a single pitch in Sunday’s game against Robert Morris, the Wolverines took a 4-0 lead in the top of the first. The pressure was off.
It took just 10 pitches for Schaefer to get her first three outs. It was foreshadowing for the trajectory of the game.
Lost in the offensive onslaught was something else — Schaefer wasn’t allowing any baserunners. Those that did realize gave her the silent treatment.
“We weren’t really talking about it because we didn’t want to jinx it,” said junior second baseman Faith Canfield. “But I think it was just (a) good atmosphere because we were hitting the ball.”
If the first several innings were sparks, the fifth inning was a full-blown explosion. Michigan scored six runs to extend its lead to 14-0. Barring anything disastrous, the run rule would end the game in the next inning. When Schaefer came back out for the last inning, it dawned on her that she was still perfect.
“I kinda realized at the end,” Schaefer said. “ … I tried not to think about it in the last inning.”
And there it was. Two quick popouts and a strikeout, and Schaefer had a birthday present better than she could have imagined.
“She threw a perfect game,” Canfield said. “I think that’s good celebration.”
It’s only appropriate that on her birthday — a day all about growing up — Schaefer demonstrated her growth since the beginning of the season. At first, most of her appearances were in garbage time and Michigan coach Carol Hutchins treated her with a short leash. Before the weekend, Schaefer had 16 strikeouts. That number has now ballooned to 28. If Schaefer and freshman left-hander Meghan Beaubien — who also has a no-hitter under her belt — can continue their upward trajectory, the Wolverines’ rotation could become a sight to behold.
Now, Schaefer is the owner of the program’s first perfect game since 2010. And this weekend was just the beginning for an athlete with her whole career ahead of her.
“It’s always something you can work towards,” Schaefer said. “Just going out there and staying relaxed. It’s the best that you can hope for.”