Taking advantage of free bases, Wolverines sweep Northwestern

Marlene Lacasse/Daily
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By Alejandro Zúñiga, Daily Sports Writer
Published May 5, 2013

After clinching its sixth consecutive Big Ten title on Friday night with a win over Northwestern, the Michigan softball team returned to its locker room and celebrated.

But when coach Carol Hutchins marched in, she had a stern message for her team: The Wildcats weren’t going anywhere, and the 10th-ranked Wolverines still had work to do. As it has all season, Michigan (20-2 Big Ten, 44-9 overall) responded to its coach, winning its final two games to sweep its final series of the regular season.

Friday’s championship-winning contest was dramatic from beginning to end, as sophomore pitcher Sara Driesenga’s complete game — which included eight strikeouts — and performance at the plate helped the Wolverines edge Northwestern, 2-1.

But Saturday afternoon’s game contained far less drama with the same result. Freshman shortstop Sierra Romero’s two-run home run in the first inning opened the scoring, and Michigan never looked back as it bombarded the Wildcats (12-10, 30-21) with 14 more runs to win 16-1 in five innings.

Romero’s home run was her 22nd of the year, setting a single-season record for the Wolverines and tying the Big Ten mark for RBIs in a season (35). After the first-inning blast, Northwestern intentionally walked Romero for the rest of the afternoon. But the freshman didn’t mind.

“It’s a free base,” Romero said. “I have confidence in my team to get me to home plate, and they did. If that means I have to take one for the team, I will.”

Junior first baseman Caitlin Blanchard had the privilege of hitting behind Romero, who reached base every time she stepped to the plate. Blanchard seized the opportunity and went two-for-three on Saturday, tying a career-best with four RBI. Romero was never stranded on base.

“I relish hitting in any opportunity,” Blanchard said. “We have a saying in the dugout that’s pretty simple: ‘Walks are good.’ Even if it’s Sierra getting intentionally walked, that’s one more base runner for our team, so of course we’re going to take that.”

Romero’s free passes to first base continued in Sunday’s 9-3 triumph, though they were slightly more painful. Amid chants of “overrated” from Wildcat fans, the freshman took a pair of pitches before being hit squarely on the shoulder in the first inning. Romero advanced to second on a Blanchard walk, stole third on the next pitch and sprinted home when the catcher’s throw dribbled into the outfield. As she crossed home plate for the Wolverines’ first run of the afternoon, the shortstop emphatically high-fived senior second baseman Ashley Lane.

“Even if she is doing it on purpose, it’s still a free base,” Romero said. “I can still steal and I can still score, so as long as it helps us out, it doesn’t matter.”

As the Wolverines’ best offensive weapon, Romero has reached base in 32 consecutive games.

Michigan doubled its lead in the second frame when senior third baseman Amy Knapp’s shallow fly dropped in front of the centerfielder for an RBI single. But Wildcat pitcher Amy Letourneau answered by slicing a three-run shot over the right-field fence to give Northwestern the lead.

Blanchard and Romero made sure it didn’t last long. With one out and the bases clear, Letourneau hit Romero for the third time that series. This time, the ball grazed off of the top of the freshman’s helmet, drawing a chorus of boos from the energetic crowd. Blanchard made Letourneau pay by launching a deep drive that landed halfway up the center field bleachers.

“It was just great that the crowd was all fired up,” Blanchard said. “When the crowd is into it and when the whole team is into it, it’s so much easier for us to go up there and get the job done.”

Romero’s third plate appearance in the fifth inning resulted in a benign four-pitch walk, though Letourneau followed by hitting Blanchard. With both runners on base, senior second baseman Ashley Lane lifted a deep fly ball that caromed off the top of the outfield wall to increase the Wolverines’ lead to four. Letourneau intentionally walked Romero in the sixth, and Blanchard plated two more runs with a line-drive double that appeared to have cleared the wall.

“I never assume it’s going out,” Blanchard said. “It was a changeup, so I definitely didn’t expect it to go out.”

Romero finished the day without an official at-bat, and Blanchard went 2-for-2 with four more RBI.

After her dominant two-hitter on Friday, Driesenga’s performance on Sunday wasn’t quite as stellar. With two outs in the third, the sophomore walked a pair of batters before allowing Letourneau’s home run. But she cruised through the final four innings — including a five-pitch fifth — to earn her 25th win of the year.

Finally, Hutchins let Michigan celebrate.

“We’ve come together as a team,” Hutchins said. “The weeks you remember are now. Today was a postseason game. It was Super Regional atmosphere and electric on the field. They won’t remember February or March; they’ll remember this.”