Minnesota quickly unravels in the fifth in Wolverines' rubber match win

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By Kelly Hall, Daily Sports Writer
Published April 20, 2014

Freshman right-hander Megan Betsa wasn’t surprised to find that she was starting for the Michigan softball team in Sunday’s rubber match against No. 12 Minnesota. Despite having two older pitchers who have experience against the Golden Gophers, Michigan coach Carol Hutchins made her decision to start the freshman Saturday night after Minnesota evened the series.

Betsa’s confidence was on display throughout all seven innings. She allowed just two hits — both solo homers — to lead her team to a 7-2 victory over Minnesota. Betsa got some help in the fifth when senior first baseman Caitlin Blanchard followed the intentional walk of Romero with a three-run double and Sweet hit a three-run homer. Betsa’s 11 strikeouts were just as essential.

“I think I’ve been throwing pretty well lately, and for (Hutchins) to just throw me out there gave me high confidence in myself,” Betsa said. “I knew they had confidence in me, so I was kind of expecting (to start).”

All year, Michigan has scored runs in bunches. The pattern held when junior catcher Lauren Sweet followed up Blanchard’s hit with a three-run homer. Nine hitters came to bat in the bottom of the fifth to score six runs. The game was all but over for Minnesota (11-5 Big Ten, 33-8 overall).

But Betsa didn’t have that run support to start off the game. After two scoreless innings for both teams, sophomore shortstop Sierra Romero lined a home run to dead center field. The Wolverines (14-1, 36-7) had a chance to boost the lead when Blanchard followed with a double over left fielder Sydney Fabian’s head, but the inning abruptly ended when Fabian stole a hit from sophomore left fielder Sierra Lawrence with a diving catch.

After an uneventful fourth, Betsa struck out the first two batters in the top of the fifth, but then No. 9 hitter Sam Macken surprised the Wolverines with a solo homer. The inning closed when Blanchard stretched for the throw from Romero to get the runner out at first.

Michigan responded to the run with intensity. After freshman second baseman Abby Ramirez reached on a botched grounder, Doyle singled through the right side. With a runner in scoring position, the Gophers replaced starting pitcher Sara Moulton with left-hander Nikki Anderson.

Romero was next up, but this time, Minnesota intentionally walked her. The home crowd stood up and booed as Romero made her way to first. The walk fired up Blanchard, who had already registered a hit in the third inning.

“It’s just a situation where they’re throwing around somebody to get to you,” Blanchard said. “Of course you take that personally, and I’m pretty determined to go up there and get a hit.”

Blanchard stepped up to bat with the bases loaded and hit a long double to dead center, allowing three Wolverines to score. The crowd gave Blanchard a standing ovation as freshman first baseman Kelly Christner was substituted in to pinch run.

“(The hit) was pretty awesome, especially since it was such a close game,” Blanchard said. “One swing of the bat was able to change the mood in the air. It was a great feeling.”

Betsa gave up her second hit in the sixth when the first batter she saw hit a homer down the left field line. She quickly adjusted, like earlier that night, and the next three hitters retired in order.

“I thought (Betsa) did respond,” Hutchins said. “She came out a little tentative against (Minnesota’s Tyler Walker) and then she got it done, and those are the things that are going to happen. You’re never going to be flawless, things are not always going to go your way.”

The Gophers got their last chance at redemption in the top of the seventh inning. But Betsa kept her composure and ended the game quickly, allowing only one batter to reach.

“This series was way better for us than winning huge over Michigan State or Indiana,” Hutchins said. “It made us a better team, it made us compete, it made us stay focused and intense and showed us that we can lose a game and be OK.”