If the chilly March day didn’t hurt Iowa’s offense enough, sophomore right-hander Megan Betsa finished the job, striking out 20 batters over the span of two games. Betsa was a showstopper for the No. 4 Michigan softball team as it defeated Iowa, 6-0 and 7-4, in a doubleheader Saturday.
In game one, bookended by a pair of three-up, three-down innings, Betsa’s performance included 16 strikeouts and just two hits.
When Betsa wasn’t pitching, Iowa right-hander Shayla Starkensburg had the opposite effect. Starkensburg walked the first five Michigan batters she faced, loading the bases before walking two runs in to score. Sophomore catcher Aidan Falk earned an RBI on a fielder’s choice in the first inning that scored junior second baseman Sierra Romero from third base. And before the Wolverines even recorded a hit, they had a three-run lead.
When the Hawkeyes finally escaped the first inning, Betsa put herself into a jam with runners on first and second and no outs after a hit batter, a single and a wild pitch that advanced the runners. It seemed like some of Starkensburg’s struggles had found their way into Betsa’s game.
“We were going into the hitting building in between innings and it’s hard to stay mentally (in the game) when you’re not even seeing what’s going on,” Betsa said. “I wasn’t mentally focused when I came back on the mound. That was something I had to pay attention to for the next inning, I just had to really get my mind right from that point and just go off of the hitters.”
After refocusing, Betsa returned to her aggressive pitching pace and the strikeouts started coming. In the few instances when the Hawkeyes were able to put the ball in play, the defense was clean and efficient. In the fifth inning, sophomore shortstop Abby Ramirez, Romero and first baseman Tera Blanco came together to turn a picture-perfect double play, another lost opportunity for the Hawkeyes.
“Especially when we aren’t hitting, we need to make sure we’re making the defensive plays,” Romero said. “And that’s something that I work on all the time, so it was nice to get that double play.”
The regularly high-octane bats of Michigan garnered just four hits in game one. One of those hits was an inside-the-park home run by sophomore left fielder Kelly Christner off the glove of a Hawkeye outfielder that dashed any hopes of an Iowa comeback.
Christner took the breath from Iowa, and Betsa nailed the coffin shut. She returned in the seventh to end game one the same way she started it: striking out the side.
In the second game, Iowa responded with better pitching. After Michigan senior left-hander Haylie Wagner allowed a walked batter to score off a single in the first inning, Michigan was forced to confront the question of how to generate the offensive production it had survived game one without.
It was fitting that Romero and Christner provided the answer.
Romero stood at the plate in the third inning and ripped a pitch past the outstretched hand of Iowa third baseman Sarah Kurtz that rumbled around the corner in the outfield, giving ample time for three Wolverine runners to score and for Romero to notch a stand-up double.
Wagner pitched four solid innings in game two before the Hawkeyes tagged her for three runs off of four hits in the fifth inning. Those three runs put Iowa back on top, and once again Michigan needed a response on offense.
This time Christner brought the power. In the bottom of the fifth, after Ramirez singled and junior centerfielder Sierra Lawrence doubled, Christner sent a towering shot up and over the center field wall for her second home run of the day.
“After they came back we knew we had to respond,” Romero said. “That’s exactly what we needed, and that’s what we did.”
After Wagner’s troublesome fifth inning, Michigan coach Carol Hutchins chose to sit Wagner for the remainder of the game in favor of sending Betsa back in as a reliever.
“(Wagner’s) purpose needs to be to beat them, and I didn’t see her throwing with that purpose,” Hutchins said. “She gave up three two-strike hits and we went behind. That’s not acceptable.”
Betsa reentered the game without missing a beat. In two full innings of work, she added four strikeouts to her total and allowed no hits to earn the save.