OKLAHOMA CITY – Sophomore right-hander Megan Betsa and the Wolverine defense couldn’t get the job done. Michigan couldn’t on offense either. Senior left-hander Haylie Wagner could, but she alone wasn’t enough.
Meanwhile, Florida right-hander Aleshia Ocasio threw the first Haeger-less innings of the entire World Series for the defending national champions. For a while she shut down the Michigan’s offense and the Gator defense was always in perfect position, out after out.
The steadfast defense of the Gators outlasted the best efforts of the Michigan softball team. Even though it took every last out to put the Wolverines to bed, No. 1 Florida took Game 1 of the WCWS championship series 3-2 over No. 3 Michigan.
“I felt like we didn’t come out to play to win until about the fifth inning,” said Michigan coach Carol Hutchins. “Our energy seemed a little tentative. Things didn’t really go our way. We just had to keep plugging away and get back to having our good energy that we’re so known for.”
After Betsa left the game early for her third consecutive start, Michigan called upon the arm of Wagner. It was the third time in the World Series Wagner got a crucial third out with enemy runners on base — the second time with bases loaded.
Wagner pitched to contact, getting ground balls from every Florida batter in the fourth inning as Michigan struggled to keep a 3-0 deficit in reach. She got her three outs in 10 pitches and started shutting down the Gators.
“We’ve struggled with Wagner this year both times we’ve faced her,” said Florida coach Tim Walton. “Haylie’s got good spin, she locates well. She’s a senior, she knows what she’s doing.”
Three and a third innings pitched, zero hits. Wagner was locked in once she entered the game. All she needed was help from a little bit of offense.
The Wolverines responded with the two most important innings of run production they had played in months.
With full bases and Michigan’s speediest pinch runners in the game, sophomore shortstop Abby Ramirez slipped one past Florida shortstop Kathlyn Medina, and Michigan was able to bring its first two runs of the night in to score and cut the lead to one. That gave Wagner some help, but not enough.
The Wolverines were still down one in their last guaranteed inning, and sophomore second baseman Sierra Romero was on base. Sophomore left-fielder Kelly Christner singled to move Romero 60 feet from tying the game, but Romero held at third watching the signal from Hutchins.
On the next play, Christner got out on a fielder’s choice. Romero looked to head home but was checked down by the Florida shortstop. She stayed standing on third. Romero could have made a dash for home, but the play at the plate would have been close – after the game, Hutchins defended her captain’s choice to hold up as the right call.
One strikeout later, and Michigan was down to its very last out.
Sophomore third baseman Lindsay Montemarano had been making defensive stops the entire game for Michigan, but wasn’t able to get a hit at the plate in the high-pressure situation. She grounded out to Florida’s shortstop, and the Gators started their celebration. The seventh inning closed fast, and Michigan dropped Game 1.
Right-handed pitcher Lauren Haeger, Florida’s biggest superstar, wasn’t starting in the circle for the first time in weeks. But the first NCAA softball player to get 70 wins and 70 home runs was still present in the batting order.
She was the one responsible for putting Michigan in an early hole.
With a runner at third, Haeger worked sophomore Megan Betsa to a full count. Betsa’s last two WCWS starts were marred by earned runs and early exits against both UCLA and LSU. On the 12th pitch of the at-bat, Haeger smashed a breaking ball deep into the left-field bleachers to put Florida up 2-0 and force Betsa into working from behind again.
“We just had a good plan,” said Haeger. “(Betsa’s) a great pitcher, both of them are. They’ve gotten themselves to this stage, so there’s something to say for that. We just do our research, and we have a great plan for these pitchers.”
After that, Betsa was progressing toward matching her pitching counterpart’s efficiency. But Haeger wouldn’t have it.
A bloop single followed by a Haeger stand-up double her next time up put another run on the board for Florida. After Betsa walked a batter to load the bases, her day was done.
As excellent as Wagner was again for the Wolverines, Florida was just as good, just as worthy to be playing in the championship series. The toughly fought game lasted until the very end. Luckily for Michigan, the best-of-three format means that there is still a tomorrow. But if the Wolverines want to be national champions, they can’t afford to drop another game, or else they’ll be watching Florida hoist the trophy.