Softball can't hold early lead, falls to Arizona State in NCAA Regional contest

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By Max Bultman, Daily Sports Writer
Published May 17, 2014

For a moment, the Michigan softball team looked like it had figured out Dallas Escobedo.

More than two months after the Arizona State right-hander one-hit the Wolverines in Fullerton, Calif., Escobedo took the circle to face them again in an NCAA Regional matchup.

And for the first three batters, it appeared that Michigan (18-5 Big Ten, 43-13 overall) had learned from its mistakes, driving three straight singles off the right-hander to take a 1-0 lead in the top of the first inning. But after that three-batter stretch, Escobedo returned to form, allowing just three more base runners and striking out seven.

Behind Escobedo’s strong showing, ninth-seeded Arizona State topped Michigan, 4-1, to advance to Sunday’s Regional Final, while the Wolverines will have to win an elimination game late Saturday evening to join them.

Michigan will play the winner of San Diego State and Dartmouth at 11 p.m. Saturday for the chance to play the Sun Devils (15-7-1 Pac 12, 46-10-1 overall) on Sunday. The winner of Saturday night’s game will need to beat Arizona State twice to win the regional.

Junior left-hander Haylie Wagner pitched all six innings for the Wolverines, giving up six hits and allowing four runs, none of them earned.

For the first three-plus innings, Michigan’s first inning run was enough for the lead behind a performance from Wagner that was better than the box score indicates.

The Wolverines defense played an important role in sustaining that lead, bailing Wagner out on multiple occasions to preserve the lead. Sophomore shortstop Sierra Romero made two highlight-reel plays at short, fielding two sharply hit grounders in the hole and gunning down two Sun Devils at first in the bottom of the third.

But in the bottom of the fourth, Arizona State broke through. A hit batter and single placed two runners on base for the Sun Devils with none out, warranting a mound visit from Michigan coach Carol Hutchins.

“Our approach today was to work to stay inside the ball,” said Arizona State coach Craig Nicholson. “We made some adjustments in the middle of the game and most of our righties got off the plate a little bit. We may have been a little overaggressive early on.”

Early in the season, Wagner seemed to thrive in similar pressure situations. But lately, she has shrunk in them, losing her swagger and giving up untimely hits.

Hutchins’ mound visit looked as though it calmed the lefty down, as she struck out the next batter and induced a ground ball from the next. But Romero couldn’t cleanly field the grounder, and an Arizona State base runner scampered home to tie the game at one.

Wagner struck out the next hitter, which would have ended the inning if not for Romero’s error. Instead, Arizona State’s No. 7 hitter, Chelsea Gonzales, crushed a three-run home run to dead-center to put Michigan behind.

“Our defense kept us in the game,” Hutchins said. “But they took advantage of a leadoff free pass, the wheels fell off a little bit and we threw a pitch over the middle of the plate. And that’s the game. It was one inning. We had one good inning, they had one good inning.”

Trailing 4-1, Michigan couldn’t seem to solve Escobedo, who looked more like the pitcher the Wolverines struggled to hit in March than the one they knocked around in the first inning. Escobedo didn’t let anyone into scoring position after taking the lead, allowing only an error and a single by senior first baseman Caitlin Blanchard.

“She’s a great pitcher,” Romero said of Escobedo. “She hits her spots, and that’s really it. She’s a great pitcher, and she competes.”

In the top of the seventh, with the game on the line, Escobedo came up big again, setting the Wolverines down in order to propel her team to the regional final. Should the Wolverines win late Saturday, she will likely await them again there tomorrow.

“(We need to) keep fighting … keep attacking,” Wagner said. “We are still in the tournament right now, and that’s all that matters. And I trust my team and I believe in my team and I know we are going to come out next game and attack.”