Wolverines knock out Pittsburgh, advance to NCAA Super Regionals

By Chris Crowder , Daily Sports Writer
Published May 17, 2015

Before the first pitch was delivered, Michigan coach Carol Hutchins gave junior centerfielder Sierra Lawrence a fist bump as she stepped up to the plate. The gentle punch was followed by a strong, metaphoric one as the Wolverines came out swinging from the start. They didn’t wait around, sizing up their opponent. The jabs came quick and early.

On the third pitch of the ball game, Lawrence lined the ball just inside the right-field foul line for a double. She came around to score after two illegal pitches by Pittsburgh right-hander Savannah King. Junior second baseman Sierra Romero and sophomore left fielder Kelly Christner reached on a hit-by-pitch and walk, respectively, putting King’s start in jeopardy already.

No. 3 Michigan (54-6 overall) wouldn’t stop throwing the Panthers (37-22) haymakers from there, winning, 10-3.

Junior right fielder Kelsey Susalla delivered the early knockout punch with a three-run homer for an early 4-0 lead. The uppercut knocked King out of the circle, ending her day without recording an out.

“I don’t want to give away at-bats,” Hutchins said. “I want them to play hard every pitch.”

Three batters later, freshman designated player Aidan Falk continued her hot streak, smacking a double down the right-field foul line to score senior catcher Lauren Sweet to push the lead to five.

Sophomore shortstop Abby Ramirez struck out to end the inning. Nonetheless, the Wolverines batted around the lineup in the first frame, leading to a standing ovation from the crowd as they headed back to the dugout.

Pittsburgh tried to counter with two runners in scoring position in the bottom of the first, but failed to score after senior left-hander Haylie Wagner earned a groundout to get out of the jam.

Michigan also hurt the Panthers on the defensive side. With zero down and one on first base in the second inning, Wagner earned a strikeout. Showing no hesitation behind the plate, Sweet rifled the ball to catch the Pittsburgh base runner stealing.

With the bases loaded in the third inning, Lawrence came up to bat. And again, she delivered — this time with a bases-clearing double, hitting the top of the right-centerfield wall. Lawrence advanced to third on an errant throw home, as the last run across the plate put the game into run-rule territory, 8-0.

“I don’t think I ever even realized that I had two strikes,” Lawrence said. “I’m just going up there to get a hit.”

The Panthers’ offense came to life in its half of the third inning. Up to the plate with runners on second and third, designated player Jenna Modic hit a rocket up the middle for a two-RBI double, putting the score at 8-2. The double would lead to Wagner’s exit from the game, as sophomore right-hander Megan Betsa took over in the circle. After earning a groundout, Betsa would surrender another run by way of an RBI single, cutting the Pittsburgh deficit back to five. The damage ended there, as Betsa got the hitter to fly out to centerfield to end the inning.

“(At that point) I thought we were a little tentative,” Hutchins said. “I just felt we were starting to hold our breath a little bit to get to the outcome.”

With a runner on third base in the top of the fifth inning, Romero stepped up to the plate. What she did next was inches away from another statistic to add her name to in the Wolverines’ record book. She blasted a ball toward the right-field wall. It was inches away from a home run to give her the Michigan individual career record, falling just short and hitting the top of the wall, allowing her to leg out a RBI triple. Christner followed with an RBI of her own, giving the Wolverines a 10-3 lead.

Christner’s RBI was the last run Michigan would score, as it couldn’t muster another blow to push the game into a run-rule win.

Betsa delivered the final hook by earning a strikeout to end the game.

Sunday’s Regional Final game was the last punch Michigan had to throw in the first round. There’s one more round, one weekend, between the Wolverines and a trip to the Women’s College World Series. The road will only get tougher from here on out. But if Michigan continues to hit teams hard, there’s no reason that its last fight won’t be in Oklahoma City.

“I told our kids, ‘Congratulations, you’re one of 16 teams in the country that gets to have practice Tuesday,’ ” Hutchins said. “It’s a great accomplishment and we’re very excited about it. It’s one of our goals.”