As Ohio State centerfielder Taylor White crossed home plate, a quiet hush fell over Alumni Field, except for a pocket of scarlet-clad fans cheering wildly. White’s hit bounced off the left-field wall, alluded the gloves of junior left fielder Kelly Christner and senior centerfielder Sierra Lawrence and allowed her to notch an inside-the-park home run.
The Buckeyes had cut the Wolverines’ lead to one, as junior pitcher Megan Betsa’s bid for a second straight shutout vanished in the fourth inning.
“It didn’t seem like we were very locked in,” said Michigan coach Carol Hutchins. “I said to the team, ‘(Betsa) is doing her part, and go give her some energy because you just let her down.’
“I don’t think we are giving enough right now, and we are getting a little self-absorbed.”
Holding onto a tenuous 2-1 lead at the onset of the fifth inning, the Michigan defense once again lost its poise as senior second baseman Sierra Romero bobbled a ball, allowing Ohio State first baseman Jess Machovina to reach on an infield hit. After Betsa walked right fielder Alex Bayne, Buckeyes’ left fielder Cammi Prantl made the Wolverines pay for its poor fielding, as her double into the right-center field gap scored two, putting Ohio State (9-4-1 Big Ten, 25-11-1 overall) in front, 3-2.
“Bonnie (Tholl) went over and … told them the game plan: Hit the ball in the ground,” Hutchins said. “I think getting behind woke them up … but I thought their energy during the whole game was not very good.”
As the coaching staff attempted to spark its team, it stressed that there were two innings left to play. A lack of confidence, not talent, was contributing to their poor performance. The Wolverines (11-2, 33-4) entered the bottom of fifth with the top of their lineup due up to bat.
Romero and Susalla quickly got on base after drawing walks, and then sophomore first baseman Tera Blanco, who drove in Michigan’s second run, stepped up to the plate. Ohio State coach and Wolverine alum Kelly Kovach Schoenly walked out to the circle, attempting to inject a sense of confidence into her suddenly shaken pitcher, Shelby Hursh.
After seeing the first two pitches go high, Blanco latched onto the third one, sent it over the center-field wall for a three-run home run and vaulted Michigan into the lead.
“I mean, I was just really excited,” Blanco said. “I was just really excited to come home to my team.”
Blanco’s home run provided the Wolverines all the breathing room they would need, as Betsa returned to the mound and continued to befuddle the Buckeyes’ batters. Ohio State’s third baseman Anna Kirk struck out, pinch hitter Shelby McCombs did the same and Machovina grounded out to Romero.
Despite the sudden lead, Hutchins was still disappointed in her team’s overall sluggishness.
“I thought we could have given Megan a lot better energy,” Hutchins said. “That’s not fair to her, and that is not fair to the game of softball.”
Whether or not Betsa had her best defense backing her, it mattered little in the game’s final frame. Throwing hard and in control of the strike zone, Betsa fanned the Buckeyes’ two best hitters, Bayne and Prantl, giving Michigan a laborious and important victory over its rivals, who entered the weekend in first place in the conference.
Despite battling to three wins over Ohio State and holding a half-game lead in the conference over No. 21 Minnesota with three weeks of Big Ten games left to play, Hutchins is far from assured of her team’s status, despite the positive results earned on Alumni Field.
“We don’t ever talk about (rankings), and it is something the coaches never talk about,” Hutchins said. “I need key members of the clubhouse to embrace our message … because that is what leaders do.”