Needing just two wins to clinch the Big Ten title, the No. 2 Michigan softball team put its pedal to the metal and never let off the gas Friday against Rutgers.
In a game that lasted just an hour and a half, the Wolverines (19-2 Big Ten, 42-4 overall) took care of business early en route to a decisive 9-1 victory over the Scarlet Knights (8-13, 24-30).
Michigan jumped on the board quickly with a four-run first inning, and then outdid itself with a five-run second. In both innings, the Wolverines batted around the order, and every starter played a role in breaking the game open.
But according to Michigan coach Carol Hutchins, none played a more important part than senior center fielder Sierra Lawrence.
“(Lawrence) getting on base is really the key to our offensive success,” Hutchins said. “When she’s on base, we score a lot of runs.”
With two consecutive leadoff walks, Lawrence gave the Wolverines the opportunity to launch their offensive rallies.
After Lawrence earned a free pass to open the game, senior second baseman Sierra Romero and junior left fielder Kelly Christner hit back-to-back singles to bring her home for Michigan’s first run. Taking advantage of the no-outs scenario, the Wolverines then combined a trio of walks, a pair of infield hits and a sacrifice fly to tack on three more runs.
After Lawrence earned her second walk in as many innings, Michigan took a more power-oriented approach to pull away from Rutgers. Romero wasted no time capitalizing on the baserunner, launching a home run to left field to put the Wolverines up 6-0. Then, Michigan entered a sequence in which every other batter hit a double to right field or grounded out, leading to three more runs before an inning-ending groundout.
Following along with the Wolverine offense that scored nine runs, junior right-hander Megan Betsa struck out nine batters in just three short innings in the circle. Outside of two first-inning walks and a second-inning single, each Scarlet Knight that stepped up to the plate against Betsa succumbed to a similar fate.
Despite giving up only one hit and no runs, Betsa saw room for improvement in her control.
“I think I was very wishy-washy with my process,” Betsa said. “I was throwing a lot of pitches, and I wasn’t getting ahead of the hitters, but I just worked through it and found ways to get them out.”
While agreeing with her assessment, Hutchins credited Betsa for her ability to overcome those struggles and still achieve a successful outcome.
“She’s able to hang on and then come back and get it together and strike them out,” Hutchins said. “And she didn’t get a lot of innings tonight which is kind of nice. It’s nice for us to give her some rest and it’s really nice for us to get (sophomore first baseman) Tera Blanco in.”
Blanco, who doubles as Michigan’s third pitcher, took to the circle for the final two frames and finished the game as Betsa left it. Though she gave up two hits and a run, Blanco struck out three more batters, including a four-pitch strikeout to put an exclamation mark at the end of the five-inning, run-rule victory.
With two more games left against Rutgers this weekend, the Wolverines now need to win only one to capture their ninth-straight Big Ten title.