BLOOMINGTON — Statistics suggested the game would be defined by offensive fireworks. But as postseason softball often goes, No. 1 seed Michigan’s 1-0 Big Ten Tournament quarterfinal win over No. 9 seed Illinois turned into a pitching duel on Friday.
The teams entered with the conference’s two best batting averages — a pair of clips separated by just .002. Each offense also boasted top-three marks in on-base percentage and total runs scored, signaling that it could be a long day in the circle.
But it didn’t take long for each starting pitcher to flip the script.
Wolverines’ freshman right-hander Alex Storako didn’t allow a baserunner until the third inning — a stark contrast to her regular season struggles against the Fighting Illini. In her lone start against Illinois on Apr. 20, Storako was tagged for five earned runs in just over four innings of work. On Friday, she rebounded against a near-identical lineup with more than four scoreless innings.
Despite her 4.38 regular season ERA, Fighting Illini starter Taylor Edwards was equally impressive. She pitched into the eighth inning before allowing the game’s lone run.
Edwards held Michigan to just one hit the first time through the order, but found herself in hot water in the third frame. After a pair of singles from senior second baseman Faith Canfield and senior outfielder Natalie Peters, it looked like one of the offensive juggernauts was ready to come alive.
In the next at-bat, freshman left fielder Lexie Blair — a first team All-Big Ten selection and National Freshman of the Year finalist — laced a line drive right at Illinois second baseman Avrey Steiner. She made the catch and whipped a snap-throw over to first base for an inning-ending double play.
In the bottom of the fourth inning, a near-mirror image of the previous frame took shape. With the bases loaded and one out, Michigan coach Carol Hutchins called upon sophomore first baseman Lou Allan to pinch hit for slumping junior right fielder Haley Hoogenraad, who entered Friday with a .156 batting average over the last 12 games.
After working the count full, Allan drove a ball right at Steiner. She once again caught it and threw out junior pinch runner Thais Gonzalez as she tried to dive back to second base.
Once again, the Wolverines’ offense — which averaged a conference-best 10 runs per game during the regular season — had nothing to show for an otherwise-productive inning. Though it threatened, Illinois’ two double plays kept the scoreboard blank.
“Really, I thought it was a tough game for us today,” Hutchins said. “We just weren’t swinging at good pitches, we definitely were contagious, but give the credit to the pitchers because pitching had to keep us in the game so we could find a way to get a run.”
In the top of the fifth, the Fighting Illini used a hit batsman and single to put a pair of their own runners on base. With one out, sophomore left-hander Meghan Beaubien — last season’s Big Ten Pitcher of the Year — replaced Storako. Illinois’ highly-touted offense couldn’t plate a run, falling victim to a pop up and groundout to end the inning.
When the Fighting Illini put two runners in scoring position in the seventh frame, the death of the scoreless tie appeared inevitable. But they couldn’t push a runner across, and after Michigan failed to score in the bottom of the inning, the game entered extra innings. Nobody from either team came through with a timely hit, and offensive shortcomings kept the score knotted at zero.
But in the bottom of the eighth, Blair lifted a walk-off homer to right-center field, emphatically shattering the tie. One swing was all it took to propel Michigan to its first Big Ten Tournament semifinal appearance since 2016.
Somehow, some way, the Big Ten’s two best offenses remained scoreless through seven innings. Two teams that averaged over 13 combined runs per game against Big Ten opponents underwhelmed on Friday, as 15 total runners were left on base.
In a game that was supposed to punish pitchers, both offenses repeatedly squandered chances to get on the board. When the dust settled, the much-anticipated slugfest came down to a single swing.