It was the bottom of the fourth inning, with runners on second and third and only one out. The Michigan softball team was deadlocked with Michigan State at zero, both squads unable to generate any offense in the midweek matchup.
That was when sophomore catcher Katie Alexander hit a slow-roller down the third-base line.
From the crack of the bat, Michigan coach Carol Hutchins ran out of the third-base coaching box, high-stepping down the line as senior shortstop Abby Ramirez slid into home to score. After a throwing error by the Spartans third baseman — trying to catch the speedy Ramirez at the plate — Hutchins continued her high energy, jumping up and down while waving senior center fielder Kelly Christner home to score a second run.
Hutchins showed the emotion she, her team and the 2,300 Michigan faithful in attendance felt as the two runs crossed the plate, in what can only be described as a bizarre sequence.
The unconventional scoring play — thanks to alert base running — gave senior right-hander Megan Betsa all the run support she needed to secure the 3-1 win Tuesday night. It was enough for the Wolverines (12-2 Big Ten, 32-9-1 overall) to squeak by against the Spartans (5-9, 21-17) for their second time in as many weeks.
One inning later, Ramirez helped tack on an insurance run with an RBI single to left, scoring junior pinch runner Nikki Wald from second and putting the game far enough out of reach.
Despite extending its home win streak to 13 games, Michigan yet again couldn’t capitalize with runners in scoring positions from the onset, stranding 10 players on base and keeping the pitcher’s duel intact.
The Wolverines had chances early on — putting two on in the first inning and loading the bases with only one out in the second — but couldn’t convert. In the second, junior first baseman Aidan Falk pinch hit for sophomore right fielder Natalie Peters and struck out, followed by a single from sophomore second baseman Faith Canfield, which hit the base runner — an automatic out — and ended the inning right in its tracks.
In run-producing scenarios, Hutchins believes her team is getting inside their own heads and psyching themselves out, resulting in underachieving at the plate.
“I think staying cool is the key, and I think our hitters are not cool,” Hutchins said. “They’re not cool and composed and they feel it’s a pressure to be at the plate. And they’re feeling down on themselves, they’re feeling a little bad about their performance. They know they’re not performing well.
“I told them to quit feeling bad because warriors don’t feel bad, warriors fight. They get mad and they fight. When somebody’s knocking them down, they start knocking them back. And I’m hoping that we get to that pissed-off-ness. Because that’s what we need out of these guys. And I said, ‘I’m not going to get mad anymore because you’re going to get mad.’ ”
Despite the lackluster offensive showing, Betsa continued her dominant senior campaign, allowing only one run on five hits. The senior fanned 14 Spartans, marking her fourth straight game with double-digit strikeouts. Though she tossed 164 pitches and walked seven — uncharacteristic of a pitcher who has made it a priority to limit pitches and free bases this season — Betsa continuously got out of jams, stranding at least one Michigan State runner every inning. With two outs and the bases loaded in the sixth, Betsa got her biggest strikeout of the evening to end the frame and protect the fragile 3-1 lead.
Hutchins believes her ace battled both mental and mechanical issues throughout the game, something she has been continuing to improve upon.
“I’d like to see our offense give her some better support,” Hutchins said. “It gets tough out there when you feel like you have to be perfect, and I’m certain that’s crossed her mind. She’s mentally battled through a lot and she’s really done a great job. … Her spin is good enough. She felt like she was 80 percent tonight and good, just spin it. Sometimes when you’re tired, you’re a little more effortless. She gets more tired as she tries harder, so I thought she did a nice job with that.”
Despite getting out of tough situations on the defensive front, Hutchins’ main priority is executing correctly and effectively on offense.
“When you’re facing good pitching and they’re clearly throwing a strategy at us — off-speeding every other pitch … we gave (our players) a game plan and they didn’t execute it,” she said. “Four of the six hitters did not execute it. It’s unacceptable. We’re telling you what pitch to swing at, and we still didn’t do it. We didn’t swing at the pitch we told them to swing at. … Game plans take off the pressure. If I had you swing at the wrong pitch, it would be my fault.
“We just need to be a little tougher. Megan is tough. Toughness is not allowing yourself to get in the way. And my hitters will tell you that they’re in their own way. So they have to battle against themselves and the opposing pitcher — it’s two against one. There’s no way.”