Coming into the rubber match of the series against Ohio State, the No. 23 Michigan softball team had everything to play for.
Not only was a series win at stake for both teams, but also crucial momentum heading into the home stretch of Big Ten play.
And on Sunday, the Wolverines (29-14 overall, 9-7 Big Ten) were able to dig themselves out of an early hole behind consistent hitting and a six-inning relief performance from senior right-hander Alex Storako in a 5-4 victory over the Buckeyes (28-12, 8-7) to win the series and continue their climb in the Big Ten standings.
Just one day earlier, graduate left-hander Meghan Beubien came back from a shaky start to lead the team to a walkoff win. The win kept the series in contention, and gave Michigan confidence they could compete with Ohio State.
But that confidence didn’t show early against the Buckeyes who kicked things off, loading the bases with two outs. And just like Saturday, Beaubien struggled early.
“The defense has to play behind Beaubien,” Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said. “We just made a couple mistakes that cost us.”
A single to left that was bobbled by freshman outfielder Ellie Sieler put Ohio State up two. Another single and a walk reloaded the bases. On a hard grounder to short by center fielder Meggie Otte, Michigan graduate outfielder Melina Livingston was able to make an athletic grab, but a poor throw brought in two more runs for the Buckeyes.
This time, Beaubien would not be able to escape the inning herself. Freshman right-hander Annabelle Widra was called in to end the inning, and did so in short order.
But the damage had already been done. The Wolverines now had a four-run hole to dig themselves out of.
“We try not to let those runs (in the first) set the tone for the rest of the game,” graduate outfielder Kristina Burkhardt said. “There was a lot of game left.”
And Burkhardt wasted no time proving that.
She was hit by a pitch to lead off the first inning, providing an early baserunner. Another batter was hit — this time Livingston — putting two on for senior catcher Hannah Carson. A wild pitch advanced both runners into scoring position. Carson hit a sacrifice fly, allowing both runners to tag. A wild throw to third allowed Livingston to score as well.
The Wolverines had cut the lead to two on zero hits.
In the second inning, the Buckeyes threatened to expand their lead, quickly landing a base runner on third after a single and sacrifice bunt. But Storako — who replaced Widra at the start of the inning — was able to hold Ohio State at bay. Designated player Sam Hackenbracht grounded a ball to freshman shortstop Ella McVey, who gunned it home to Carson. Carson stood tall and kept the ball in her glove throughout the play to complete the tag, preventing another run from scoring.
Michigan continued to dig its way out in the third, as Burkhardt tripled to center field. Blair brought her home with a grounder to second. Carson continued the hitting outburst, with another ball to the center field wall, this time for a double. The Wolverines were unable to capitalize any further, but the lead was now down to one.
In the fourth, McVey launched a ball into deep center for a leadoff double, and was advanced to third by a sacrifice bunt from Widra. Burkhardt walked, putting runners on the corners for Blair. Blair launched another ball into the center field wall, scoring two more.
Michigan now led 5-4 after a series of productive offensive innings and a Storako lockdown.
“We just pulled ourselves inch by inch,” Burkhardt said. “We focused on scoring every inning instead of the whole outcome.”
Heading into the seventh, the lead remained tenuous, but Storako showed no sign of slowing down. Even without her typical strikeout-heavy performance, Storako still led the team to a shutout.
“I think some days you have your best stuff and some days you don’t,” Hutchins said. “And the fact that she can win without her best stuff says a lot.”
With Storako shutting the door on the Buckeyes in the seventh, the Wolverines won the series and solidified a 4-1 season record against their biggest rivals.
They also showed a true grittiness and determination on the offensive end, clawing their way back into a game that seemed out of reach.
These are promising signs for Michigan. Now it needs to translate this momentum forward.