Heading into the seventh inning Sunday, the Michigan softball team stared an unpleasant fate square in the face.
Just three outs stood in the way of an unimaginable series loss to the Big Ten bottom dweller Maryland (2-9 Big Ten, 9-30-1 overall).
A two-out, two-run triple in the bottom of the fifth off the bat of outfielder Sarah Calta gave the Terrapins a 3-2 lead, leaving the Wolverines (11-2, 31-9-1) with just three outs to salvage at least a run to extend the game.
The plucky Terrapins had nothing to lose and everything to gain — seeking little more than to play spoiler.
Michigan, on the other hand, needed the win to stay within a game of Minnesota (10-1, 38-3) atop the Big Ten standings. A loss would have all but extinguished Michigan’s chances at its 10th-straight Big Ten regular-season title.
With “better energy,” as Michigan coach Carol Hutchins described, the Wolverines managed to piece together a rally.
After Maryland left-hander Hannah Dewey walked the bases loaded, senior centerfielder Kelly Christner came through with a single that dropped into shallow left field to tie the game at three. Sophomore outfielder Courtney Richardson then delivered a long sacrifice fly to the right field warning track to grab the lead.
Senior right-hander Megan Betsa shut the door from there, closing out the game and claiming the series with a scoreless seventh.
Overall, Hutchins was pleased with her pitchers’ performance on the weekend, even when the offense sputtered.
“Megan’s been a rock for us,” Hutchins said. “She’s our leader. She’s throwing right now with an offense that’s underperforming. So she’s got to have nerves of steel, and I was really proud of her. I thought she really had a gutsy performance today.”
After cruising to a 5-1 victory Friday evening behind another stalwart effort from Betsa, the Wolverines headed into Saturday looking to take control of the series.
Instead, Michigan was held to only one hit in its first six innings, heading to the final frame down 2-0.
The Wolverines looked primed to sneak out the win in the seventh inning, though, when Richardson knocked home freshman outfielder Thais Gonzalez with nobody out.
An offense that had otherwise been anemic all day came to life in hopes of salvaging an eighth-straight victory over the Terrapins.
But the comeback on this day wasn’t meant to be, as the rally would halt there. With runners on first and second base for Michigan, Hutchins called for a sacrifice bunt from sophomore catcher Katie Alexander to move both runners into scoring position with only one out.
Though senior third baseman Linsday Montemarano followed that up with the single the Wolverines needed, Richardson was subsequently thrown out at home. Freshman shortstop Madison Uden then grounded out to third base, ending the threat and giving the Terrapins their first win over the Wolverines since Feb. 17, 2012.
Hutchins knows Michigan’s offensive production — scoring just 10 runs all weekend against a team that came in allowing 6.57 runs per game — won’t cut it.
Her decision to jumble the lineup Sunday — moving Alexander to fifth, shifting sophomore second baseman Faith Canfield to the leadoff spot and placing sophomore outfielder Natalie Peters in the ninth spot among the fray — conveyed as much.
“We’re counting on people to do their part. If people don’t do their part we’re gonna move people around, we’re gonna put other people in,” Hutchins said. “I believe that any one of my kids can get it done at anytime — I believe in all of them. I just need them to believe in them. They need to believe in themselves.”
Richardson, though, was a bright spot amongst the offensive turmoil. Her double Saturday accounted for the team’s only run, her solo home run gave the Wolverines an early lead Sunday and she capped off a banner weekend with the go-ahead sac-fly in Sunday’s win.
On the weekend, the Wolverines will breathe a sigh of relief on the way back to Ann Arbor. They skirted potential disaster, conquering two of three on the weekend in advance of a midweek game against Michigan State.
But in the long term, the unforeseen weekend-long fight highlights a sporadic offensive output that has plagued the team all year — a reputation it will try to, and need to, shed if it harbors any hopes of a Big Ten Tournament and NCAA Tournament run.