For a period of time this weekend, the Michigan softball team’s Big Ten conference title hopes hung in the balance. Losing the series to Indiana (16-4 Big Ten, 24-27 overall) meant that the Hoosiers would take sole possession of first place in the Big Ten standings, and the Wolverines (15-2, 40-8) would drop to third place with just one series remaining in conference play.
With the outcome of the Big Ten looming large, Michigan traveled to Bloomington, Ind. in what was the most consequential series of the season to date.
On Friday, Indiana struck first.
After failing to capitalize in the first inning by stranding two runners in scoring position, the Hoosiers scored in the second inning on an RBI double to left-center field from first baseman Taylor Uden –– taking the lead, 1-0. It was the first run surrendered by freshman left-hander Meghan Beaubien over her last 18 innings.
The Wolverine offense responded with two runs in the top of the fourth which began with a leadoff walk by senior right fielder Aidan Falk. Then, Michigan’s first run came courtesy of a sacrifice fly from junior utility player Alex Sobczak with the bases loaded, and junior second baseman Faith Canfield followed with an RBI single, giving her team a 2-1 lead.
In the circle, Beaubien returned to the stingy style of pitching that earned her a sub-0.90 earned-run average. She pitched her way out of multiple jams with the help of the Wolverine defense –– allowing only four hits and stranding four base runners after the second inning.
The solid defense was on display the entire game. In the fourth inning, Indiana catcher Bella Norton was thrown out at second by freshman shortstop Natalia Rodriguez trying to stretch a single into a double on a ball that hit off third base and ricocheted into foul territory. And in the sixth inning with the bases loaded, sophomore third baseman Madison Uden recorded a force out at home to prevent a run, followed by Rodriguez corralling a grounder and getting the third out at second base on the subsequent at-bat.
The boost received by the defense helped maintain Michigan’s lead, as it crossed the plate three more times on a pair of home runs from Falk and sophomore utility player Haley Hoogenraad.
After facing an early deficit, the Wolverines notched a comeback victory in the series opener, 5-1.
Beaubien took the circle again on Saturday. This time, she received early run support, as Michigan scored four runs through the first four innings, going up 4-0. Three of the four runs were scored in the fourth inning on an RBI single from junior centerfielder Natalie Peters and a two-RBI single by Uden. However, the Wolverines would go on to leave the bases loaded in the inning and did so again in the sixth inning.
“We had several opportunities to keep scoring and we left eleven runners on base,” said Michigan coach Carol Hutchins. “And it just allowed them to stay confident that they were within striking distance.”
Indiana immediately responded in the bottom half of the fourth by scoring three runs, similarly, on an RBI single and two-RBI single –– cutting the lead to 4-3.
The Wolverines were one out away from winning the first two games of the series, but the Hoosiers refused to go down without a fight. With two runners on base and two outs, a single by right fielder Gabbi Jenkins drove in a run to tie the game at 4-4 in the bottom of the seventh. And in the bottom of the ninth, a leadoff home run by Taylor Uden won the game for Indiana, 4-5.
With the series tied 1-1, the two teams squared off Sunday to determine who would exit the weekend as the first-place team in the Big Ten.
Senior right-hander Tera Blanco started in the circle for Michigan in what turned into a pitchers’ duel. Blanco was in a groove, surrendering only two hits in five and one-third innings. But after walking two batters in the sixth, she was replaced by Beaubien. Despite immediately giving up a single on her first pitch to load the bases with only one out, the freshman struck out the next two batters to escape the inning.
On offense, the Wolverines threatened all game, leaving runners stranded on base in six of the first seven innings.
“Well, we had runners on base all weekend,” Hutchins said. “All day (Saturday) and all day (Sunday). I think we had a lot of cases of just everybody trying too hard and putting pressure on themselves.”
It took nine innings, again, to determine a winner.
With two outs and two runners on base, Maddie Uden stepped up to the plate and took a two-and-one pitch to the left-center field warning track. Both runners scored on the winning two-RBI double, giving Michigan the lead, 2-0.
Beaubien made quick work of the Hoosiers in the bottom half of the inning, striking out a pair of hitters to record her 29th victory of the season.
“We looked like (Saturday) we felt a lot of pressure and honestly throughout a lot of the day (Sunday)”, Hutchins said. “Our at-bats –– we just looked like we were putting a lot of pressure on ourselves. So, I thought it was great to work through that and to come out with a win. Hopefully it gives us full confidence to build on –– it was a full team effort.”