So far this season, the mound has been a safe haven for the No. 2 Michigan softball team.
But the Wolverines’ Sunday doubleheader against Illinois featured uncharacteristic performances from all three of Michigan’s pitchers, resulting in two tight contests with the Fighting Illini.
“We basically had to outscore them,” Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said Sunday. “Our offense picked up for our pitching today.
“Usually our pitching is picking up for our offense.”
After just edging out a victory, 8-6, in game one, the second-ranked Wolverines (7-1 Big Ten, 39-3 overall) had sophomore pitcher Stephanie Speierman preparing to throw.
Following a bleak game one performance by senior pitcher Jordan Taylor, it was Speierman’s turn to step up.
Freshman Caitlin Blanchard opened up the game in the first inning with a two-RBI single to give Michigan the early lead. Then with two runners on, senior designated hitter Alycia Ryan launched a three-run homerun over the right field wall, pushing the Wolverine lead to 5-0.
Speierman had a five-run cushion to work with, which should have made her comfortable on the mound.
But after a walk, two singles and a wild pitch, the Fighting Illini (6-4, 19-17) quickly came back to within three.
Hutchins looked to keep the damage to a minimum by benching Speierman and replacing her with freshman pitcher Hilary Payne.
“I put Speierman out there to do her part,” Huchins said. “But she just wasn’t able to do her part. She was getting called for a lot of illegal pitches … Payne went out there and did her part.”
Payne didn’t have much time to get her bearings, however, as her first batter knocked just the second pitch over the left field wall and out of the park.
The rest of the game was pitched relatively cleanly, with a walk or hit batter occurring less often. Payne pulled out a steady few innings, despite Illinois closing the gap to 9-5.
Taylor was brought back out to try and redeem herself in the bottom of the fifth.
But a homerun in the bottom of the seventh by Fighting Illini right fielder Hollie Pinchback put Illinois back in motion and the Wolverines back on their heels. Taylor pulled it together to retire the inning and give Michigan its second close win of the day, 9-7.
“I have to give Illinois credit,” Hutchins said. “We were putting the ball over the plate and they were hitting it. That just consistently happened all day.”
Michigan dealt with pitching issues the entire day. Taylor, normally the Wolverine ace, didn’t have her usual mojo from the moment the first game started.
Fighting Illini second baseman Danielle Zymkowitz hit an immediate double off Taylor in the first. After Taylor hit two batters to push the runners around, Zymkowitz was able to score, tying the game at one.
Michigan came out in the second and blew up the score with consistent singles, taking a 5-1 lead. And with back-to-back homeruns in the fourth by junior third baseman Amanda Chidester and Lane, it looked as though the Wolverines might even force the mercy rule.
“We just went out there and did what we had to do to help them out,” Lane said of giving offensive support to Michigan’s pitchers. “We take it one day at a time, one game at a time and just support all we can.”
But the bottom of the sixth showcased a Fighting Illini rally, utilizing a double and homerun to score four runs with two outs on the board.
Taylor closed out the game, her true form making a brief appearance, to strike out the last three batters. But after hitting five batters and giving up nine hits, it was clear that Taylor was not her usual self.
For the Wolverines to sit comfortably at number two in the nation, days like today must be few and far between.
“Our kids have to learn to trust each other and be more consistent pitch-to-pitch,” Hutchins said on Sunday. “Both on the defensive and offensive sides.”