Softball falls short: When outcomes do matter

Ruby Wallau/Daily
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By Justin Meyer , Daily Sports Writer
Published May 11, 2014

EVANSTON — There was no alumni band, no “Hail to the Victors” and no video hype montage when the Michigan softball team stepped onto Northwestern’s Drysdale Field Friday — just three opponents between it and a Big Ten Tournament championship.

The expectations accompanying the uniform each Wolverine pulled on were perhaps evident in the alumni packing the grandstand, but the No. 10 Michigan squad that showed up this weekend appeared to relish the chance to be just another team in the tournament field.

“We had a good time today,” said Michigan coach Carol Hutchins. “They were into it, they were very engaged. I always think we’re best when we’re loose. There’s no pressure. Pressure is a perception.”

The Big Ten Tournament was a chance at redemption for the team that stumbled into sharing the conference title in the final weeks of the season, but also a chance to get away from the distractions that had hounded them during the year.

The Wolverines couldn’t afford to let an opportunity like that slip away.

Friday, after playing four and a half innings of tight softball with a streaking Illinois team, senior first baseman Caitlin Blanchard snuck a grand slam shot just over the right field wall. The blast put the Wolverines comfortably into the semifinal against Wisconsin Saturday.

But what takes a season to build can be torn down with one swing of the bat.

When Badger catcher Chloe Miller belted a solo shot well over the batting cages beyond center field to give Wisconsin a one-run lead, it seemed certain Michigan would be packing its bags for Ann Arbor.

Instead, Blanchard brought fireworks to the plate again when she drove in the game-winning run in the bottom frame. Just like that, the Badgers’ hopes of a championship matchup were dashed, and they were the team boarding a bus bound back to campus.

“You can’t assume, ‘Oh, we’re up 3-2, top of the seventh,’ that we’re just going to win it” Miller said. “Anything can happen, and of course, Michigan had the right things happen at the right time.”

Added Hutchins: “We found out a way to win it. We came out and attacked in the seventh inning. That was a big win.”

Michigan got a few bounces and calls along the way, but the championship matchup felt right. The Wolverines, a short half-hour removed from easing their recent struggles against Wisconsin, looking to put away No. 3 seed Minnesota.

The 15th-ranked Golden Gophers sent Big Ten Pitcher of the Year Sara Groenewegen to the circle, and Michigan countered with sophomore shortstop Sierra Romero, the Big Ten Player of the Year.

The lights came on and the Wolverines struck first, driving in a pair of runs for the 2-0 lead. Minnesota fought back, smacking a pair of solo homers in the bottom of the inning. The second thudded right off the scoreboard for added emphasis.

And it continued all night — punch and counterpunch, dazzling play after play. Even as the innings wore on, smiles and shouts were abound in each dugout.

It was the kind of game that didn’t want to end. But then Minnesota’s Sam Macken was at the plate, hitless on the weekend, with the winning run on third.

Michigan’s bench grew still, the gravity of the situation quieting the dugout that had been bursting with enthusiasm all game.

Junior lefty Haylie Wagner delivered the pitch to Macken, who pounded a grounder at freshman second baseman Abby Ramirez. Ramirez couldn’t control the hard bounce.

In the same moment, one freshman having a rough tournament walked off a hero, and the other watched the winning run cross the plate as the ball flew over her shoulder.

The Wolverines hadn’t played perfectly — Hutchins was particularly upset with the inability to adjust to and attack opposing pitchers — but they played well enough to give themselves a chance.

“That was a tough game, and a tight game,” Hutchins said. “When I get after (my team), it’s because we know what they need to do and we know they’re capable of doing it. No one wants it to happen for them more than me or any of my staff. They need to take that as a compliment because it’s the highest compliment.”

The stadium speakers blasted “Soak Up the Sun” as Minnesota stormed the field, Gatorade cooler at the ready.

Hutchins and her players constantly talk about staying in their process and doing their part. Sometimes they do those things well enough to win, and sometimes they lose anyway.

All I want to do is have some fun.

But Michigan wanted the championship.

On Saturday night, under the lights and in the perfect game to cap off the Big Ten season, it wasn’t to be.