OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. — With UCLA firmly in control and only eight outs away from its third consecutive National Championship, everyone at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium seemed prepared to see the Bruins add another trophy to their already impressive collection.
That is, everyone except for the Michigan softball team.
Junior Becky Marx’s two-run home run in the top of the fifth broke the Wolverines’ scoreless drought, and senior Jessica Merchant’s two-run double put Michigan on top for good, propelling the Wolverines (64-7) to a 4-2 victory. The win knotted the championship series at 1-1 and forced a winner-take-all final game today to decide the national championship.
“That was a great game,” Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said. “It was very exciting, and if there is one thing that our team has done all year, (it) is come back. (The players do) not give up on themselves.”
With junior Stephanie Bercaw at first and one out, Marx — who was hitting a paltry .090 for the tournament before coming to the plate — took a 1-1 Anjelica Seldon fastball over the leftfield wall. Marx pumped her fists in triumph and was greeted by her teammates at the plate.
“I always have faith in myself,” Marx said. “I was trying my hardest out there. I just wanted to do something to help the seniors get to put their uniforms on one more day.”
But the Wolverines were not settled with the tie.
Sophomore Rebekah Milian followed Marx by singling up the middle. She then advanced to second after a grounder off the bat of junior Tiffany Haas was thrown away by Seldon. The two each advanced a base after freshman Alessandra Giampaolo grounded out down the first-base line. That left senior Jessica Merchant — who was 0-for-10 in her last 10 at-bats — to try to give Michigan its first lead of the series.
“We pick each other up,” Merchant said. “And they’ve been picking me up for a while now, so it was my turn to do something for my team.”
She delivered, taking a 1-1 Seldon pitch into the left-center gap, scoring both Wolverines on base. Michigan added a run in the seventh after freshman Samantha Findlay doubled in Giampaolo, while junior Jennie Ritter prevented any Bruins from scoring after Michigan took the lead.
Ritter ended the day with five strikeouts. She allowed just four Bruins to reach base on four hits and zero walks. Of her two runs, only one was earned. Ritter improved her record to 37-4. Seldon had 13 strikeouts but allowed eight hits. Her record for the season dropped to 29-13.
Before Michigan’s offensive explosion in the fifth inning, it looked as if UCLA (40-19) would cruise to its second straight win against the Wolverines. The Bruins found the scoreboard for the first time in the third inning when Andrea Duran tripled in teammate Lisa Dodd, who had been sacrificed to second base after reaching first base on a Haas error. UCLA’s stranglehold on the game got even tighter when Caitlin Benyi led off the fourth inning with a solo home run. Benyi took a 1-2 Ritter pitch over the leftfield wall, extending the Bruin lead to two runs. But Benyi and the Bruins knew that Michigan was not just going to lie down and let its season come to an end.
“You can’t take anything for granted,” Benyi said. “I think if it was a grand slam, we wouldn’t have thought any differently.”
Benyi was right, as Michigan’s offensive explosion came the next inning. That explosion set up a final game in the best-of-three series, which will take place tonight at 7:30.
UCLA has shown poise throughout the season with its back against the wall. In Super Regional action against Georgia — which was also a best-of-three format — the Bruins were down one game and 4-0 in the second game, but they somehow found a way to dig deep and come back. The first-game loss to Georgia was their last loss before last night.
The Wolverines showed last night what they can do with their backs against the wall, and they plan to leave everything on the field in the dramatic, decisive game three tonight.
“I think that when two great teams meet each other, they are bound to split,” Hutchins said. “(Today) is going to be really exciting.”