What should have been a five-game opening weekend for the No. 4 Michigan softball team turned into three games after rainfall washed out Friday’s matchups against a couple of ranked opponents.
But there was no shortage of drama at the NTC Elite Invitational in Clermont, Fla., as Sunday morning’s win over No. 8 UCLA went to 13 innings.
An early-season, extra-innings victory may seem somewhat inconsequential at first glance — it was the first weekend of regular season play for a sport that doesn’t see the postseason until summer.
But this weekend was perhaps the most important of the entire season, as the Wolverines caught a glimpse of the competition they hope to see in Oklahoma City at the College World Series in June.
After cruising to a 12-1 victory over Tennessee-Chattanooga on Saturday afternoon, Michigan stumbled in the nightcap to No. 7 Georgia, as they gave up four unearned runs en route to a 6-4 loss.
“We didn’t play defense as well as we can,” Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said. “But the lighting was kind of sketchy, it was our first time out and I’m not overly concerned about that. Defensively, we’re going to be a strong team.”
While the Wolverines have a slight advantage over the Bulldogs in the all-time series, the team has been a thorn in Michigan’s side as of late, as it eliminated Michigan from the College World Series last June. But this weekend, the Wolverines beat themselves.
A fielding error committed by sophomore second baseman Amanda Chidester in the first inning led to Georgia’s opening run. And senior right fielder Angela Findlay’s dropped fly ball in the third inning opened the gates for three more Bulldog scores, including a two-run homer.
These are breakdowns in fundamentals that any team can fall victim to as it shakes off the rust of a lengthy offseason. But the elite teams are the ones that exhibit midseason form while others are still adjusting to outdoor conditions, grueling 30-game road trips and five-game-per-weekend marathons.
“Right now we’re trying to focus on one game at a time and winning the game that we’re in,” senior third baseman Maggie Viefhaus said. “A lot of people keep talking about expectations, but they’re really short-term. One step at a time.”
Junior hurler Jordan Taylor returned to the mound Sunday on less than 24 hours of rest, fresh off her solid one-run outing against Chattanooga. She made easy work of UCLA in regulation, giving up only a base hit over seven innings, but she received little run support — neither team crossed the plate until extras. After exchanging runs in both the ninth and 12th innings, Chidester drove in Viefhaus to put Michigan on top for good in the 13th.
Taylor, who posted a gaudy 31-4 record with a 0.76 ERA in her freshman year — both Wolverine rookie records — put up All-American numbers against UCLA. She gave up two runs — none earned — on five hits and struck out 18 batters, which is one short of Michigan’s single game strikeout record.
And her last strikeout came in dramatic fashion, as it ended the Bruins’ rally with runners on the corners in the bottom of the 13th inning.
“She was the most competitive player on the field,” Hutchins said. “She was really sharp from start to finish. She started the game well, and she finished it well.”