Wolverines come out flat, rebound to take series against Illinois

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By Max Bultman, Daily Sports Writer
Published April 27, 2014

For the third straight series, the Michigan softball team came out lacking something to be desired.

The Wolverines’ slow starts have led to three straight series-opening defeats to Big Ten opponents but have also all resulted in resounding wins the next day.

That was no different this weekend, as No. 4 Michigan suffered a 10-2 run-rule defeat to Illinois before responding to sweep a doubleheader over the Fighting Illini the next day.

Freshman right-hander Megan Betsa stopped the bleeding after Friday’s embarrassing defeat — at the hands of the Big Ten’s last-place team, no less — to score a mercy-rule victory of her own Saturday afternoon, winning 10-2. Sophomore outfielder Sierra Lawrence kept the Wolverines afloat in the second half of the doubleheader with a two-run home run that proved to be the difference in a 6-5 win.

Michigan (17-3 Big Ten, 39-9 overall) led 1-0 after two innings in Friday’s loss, but Illinois’ offense got rolling in the third. The Fighting Illini (4-16, 20-25) racked up three runs on three hits and two errors — an uncharacteristic performance against a team boasting the nation’s second-best fielding percentage. And while the Wolverines cut the deficit to 3-2 the next inning, that was as close as it got, as Illinois poured on seven more runs to end the game in the sixth inning.

The 10 runs Michigan allowed were the most it has given up all year, and they came against an opponent that was, on paper, nowhere near the top competition the Wolverines have faced.

“We can’t take teams for granted,” Betsa said. “I think that the most important thing we’re told is that we’re playing ourselves and that’s what we have to remember.”

Coming back the next day, Betsa embodied that attitude, picking up the team’s intensity and giving up just two runs to give Michigan a chance to win the game.

The offense took that chance and ran with it.

The Wolverines loaded the bases to start the first inning, allowing senior center fielder Lyndsay Doyle to score on a sacrifice fly from senior first baseman Caitlin Blanchard. After a bases-loaded wild pitch added a run in the second inning, senior designated player Taylor Hasselbach belted a three-run homer in the fourth to put the game out of reach.

Sophomore shortstop Sierra Romero, who is among the finalists for National Player of the Year, went 2-for-4 with an intentional walk in the game.

“In that first game, when they got those runs on us, our confidence kind of dropped,” Romero said. “We know that when we’re out there having fun and attacking every pitch and battling together, that’s when we’re going to do our best.”

Michigan has faced that reality check three times in the past week, though.

With how quickly the team usually identifies and corrects problems, this trend of series-opening losses is hardly worth worrying about. But it does prove that the Wolverines, who had won 20 in a row before a 1-0 loss last Friday to Minnesota, are beatable.

A narrow win over the Fighting Illini in the second game of the doubleheader clinched the series for the Wolverines, but a back-and-forth three-game set against a bottom-dweller is not how Michigan coach Carol Hutchins wants to prepare for the postseason. But eager anticipation of the conference and NCAA tournaments could be the reason the Wolverines looked, at times, unfamiliar this weekend.

“We need to not think ahead or try to do too much,” Romero said. “We can’t be worried about where we’re going to be later on. We have to focus on where we are in (each) game.”