- Paul Sherman/Daily
By Justin Meyer , Daily Sports Writer
Published February 9, 2014
Michigan softball coach Carol Hutchins’s mantra is that her team plays “one-pitch softball.”
It was fitting, then, that in the final inning of the fifth-ranked Wolverines’ first contest of the season, junior pitcher Sara Driesenga stared down a batter with an 0-2 count, the bases loaded, two outs and Michigan up 4-0.
The next pitch was sent soaring into right field. Just like that, it was 4-3.
But No. 4 Florida (6-0) didn’t stop there, mounting a furious comeback to force extra innings and eventually win the game in the eighth, 9-4.
“We’re not where we need to be at this point,” Hutchins said, “but it’s good to get out on the dirt and see what we’ve got and see where we have to go.”
Michigan (3-1) looked strong early in the game, registering eight hits and taking the 4-0 lead after a grand slam by sophomore shortstop Sierra Romero.
Driesenga, who pitched six scoreless innings against Florida before falling apart in the seventh, was the Wolverines’ top pitcher last year, but figures to share that role more this year with a deep pitching staff. Driesenga, freshman Megan Betsa and junior Haylie Wagner all saw significant time in the circle this weekend, with varying results.
Hutchins showed she wouldn’t hesitate to use that rotation when she wasted no time in pulling Driesenga after she gave up the three-run shot to the Gators.
“Against Florida, we played six great innings,” Hutchins said. “But the game is seven innings long. You have to play all of them with the same confidence, the same intensity, and I think we failed in that category.”
Betsa made her collegiate debut in the seventh with the Gators’ winning run on base. The freshman struggled to find the strike zone, hitting the first batter and walking the bases loaded before getting pulled herself.
Driesenga re-entered the game in the seventh and escaped the jam after allowing one more run, but Florida’s bats came alive again in the eighth. The Gators’ Taylor Schwartz sent a ball over the fence on a pitch Driesenga left hanging on the inside corner of the plate, forcing Hutchins to put Wagner in to finish the game.
“We took Sara out because she wasn’t executing,” Hutchins said. “She wasn’t throwing with confidence. We wanted to win the game.”
It was a tough loss to swallow for Driesenga and the Wolverines, but the team responded in impressive fashion. Just half an hour later, the team took on No. 25 South Florida and U.S. National Team pitcher Sarah Nevins.
In that contest, the Wolverines played through another tight game, but this time limited their mistakes and took advantage of opportunities on offense.
Betsa immediately got a chance to redeem her earlier performance against the Bulls (1-2). She pitched a complete game, registered six strikeouts and allowed just two earned runs.
After South Florida intentionally walked Romero in the sixth, senior first baseman Caitlin Blanchard stepped up to send the tying and winning runs home. Betsa then finished off the Bulls with six straight outs.
The 3-2 win propelled Michigan into Sunday’s games, in which the Wolverines heated up at the plate with 30 hits and 19 runs in wins against Illinois State and Bethune-Cookman.
Against the lesser competition Sunday, the defense was sound. Wagner recorded 10 strikeouts and pitched Michigan’s second complete game of the tournament against Illinois State (1-3).
Freshman infielder Abby Ramirez also continued her strong opening weekend into the morning game against the Redbirds. She went 3-for-4 in the contest and 7-for-12 on the weekend. Hutchins said Ramirez was a spark plug across the board and probably the top performer of the weekend.
Sunday’s contest against an overmatched Bethune-Cookman team was cut short by the mercy rule in the fifth inning, as Michigan rolled, 12-1. Driesenga and Betsa split the game, and Hutchins said she still needed to see Betsa give up fewer free bases. The freshman walked five batters while fanning seven.
“That’s not the kind of pitching that we’re going to need from her,” Hutchins said. “I think she’s capable of better.”
Pitching wasn’t the only position that Hutchins toyed with over the weekend. The Wolverines tried to find the right fit at third base, starting sophomore Kelsey Susalla against the Gators but going with freshman Lindsay Montemarano after Susalla committed an error to help fuel Florida’s comeback.
Susalla did start at designated player against Illinois State on Sunday and replaced Montemarano at third against Bethune-Cookman.
Also of note was sophomore Sierra Lawrence’s absence in Saturday’s games. Lawrence, who had a productive season at the plate last year, was expected to start in left field. Instead she was a healthy scratch for the first two games, though she did start and play well against Bethune-Cookman. Hutchins didn’t elaborate on why Lawrence didn’t make an appearance Saturday.
The sting of the Florida game had worn off somewhat by the end of the tournament, but for the Wolverines, which will spend the next five weekends on the road, the loss was only one game in a long and harrowing schedule.
“That’s the beauty of softball,” Hutchins said. “The next game was 30 minutes away, and we get a minute to basically take it and put it where it belongs, which is in the trash. Whether you win that game or lose that game, that game’s over.”