The No. 23 Michigan softball team needs an offensive reawakening. Against Minnesota on Friday, the Wolverines managed only two runs on three hits to support senior left-hander Meghan Beaubien, who only allowed one scoring play all game.
But with senior right-hander Alex Storako on the mound Saturday, not much support was necessary.
The Wolverines (30-15 overall, 10-8 Big Ten) defeated the Golden Gophers (22-21-1, 7-10) in a 1-0 affair as Storako held the Golden Gophers at bay long enough for the offense to score the lone and winning run.
Right from the first at bat, Storako faced a heavy workload. Minnesota started off strong, putting pressure on the Wolverines’ defense immediately.
Designated player Lauren Espalin kicked off the game with a bunt single, then left fielder Ellee Jensen hit a soft grounder and beat out the throw to first, quickly putting two on for the Gophers. A hard grounder through the right side loaded the bases, but a strong throw from junior outfielder Audrey LeClair prevented Espalin from scoring.
Storako remained unfazed and grinded her way to a called third strike for the first out of the inning, while graduate outfielder Kristina Burkhardt fielded a high fly ball for the second and held Espalin at third. On a full-count pitch, Storako got shortstop Makenna Dowell to chase a high riseball to escape the inning cleanly.
“Things can go sideways when you have bases loaded and nobody out,” associate head coach Bonnie Tholl said. “And then we record three outs in a row. (Storako) did what she was supposed to do after the first three hitters, and we have to celebrate that and move on.”
After that momentary — and still harmless — lapse, Storako moved on in short order. Minnesota’s momentum generated from an eventful first inning evaporated in the second, as Storako threw three straight strikeouts. The game remained locked at zero halfway through as both Storako and right-hander Autumn Pease continued to perform in the circle.
“The momentum starts on the mound,” Tholl said. “… If you pitch and play good defense, that’s where it starts.”
With the game up for grabs, the Wolverines’ offense finally roared to life in the fourth inning. As senior designated player Lexie Blair earned a four-pitch walk, a sacrifice bunt and a double brought her home for a 1-0 lead. Michigan was unable to capitalize any further, as a flyout and groundout ended the inning.
Now pitching with a slim lead behind her, Storako continued to impress, stranding runners and escaping cleanly again and again.
Down to its last three outs to even the score, Minnesota earned a leadoff runner in the seventh inning. But a bunt attempt to advance pinch runner MacKenzie Denson went astray, as it popped up for fifth-year senior third baseman Taylor Bump to catch. Burkhardt snagged a deep fly ball for the second out, but the Wolverines weren’t in the clear yet.
After Denson tagged up and stole second base, she caught Michigan sleeping and took third too. It was all for naught though, as Michigan escaped the inning and took the game.
“It took a lot of grit,” Storako said. “… I’m not able to spin the ball like I do if I don’t trust the defense behind me.”
Storako was able to carry the day for the Wolverines, but it didn’t come easy. She stranded 10 runners on her way to a shutout, and repeatedly had to rely on her defense to make plays. And for the entire game, the defense had her back.
Michigan was able to win, but it needs more from its bats. Its pitchers are not going to throw shutouts every game, and at some point the offensive performance needs to arrive.
On Saturday though, those problems didn’t prevent the Wolverines from winning.