For the first month of conference play, the No. 2 Michigan softball team pummeled the dregs of the Big Ten. But now the Wolverines are finding themselves in some of the most competitive matchups theey have had all season, including their two-game series against Kentucky this past weekend
Though Michigan’s struggles in both games were different in character, the solution to those struggles remained the same — timely clutch hitting, propelling the Wolverines to a pair of wins, 5-4 on Friday and 8-4 on Saturday.
In the first game, those timely plays surfaced in the bottom of the sixth inning as Michigan (40-6 overall) trailed.
Sophomore outfielder Bree Evans led off, garnering Michigan’s first run of the game on a disputed play at home. Evans was originally declared out, but the call was overturned when the third baseman was called for base-path obstruction. The play was officially scored as a triple with an error on the third baseman leading to the score.
“I was a little hesitant to bring her to third, even though I thought she had a shot at it because you don’t want to make an out at third base and ruin your inning,” Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said. “That was big, because for her to be out on that play, that inning would not have happened.”
From there, momentum carried the team forward as part of a four-hit, five-run inning. Senior third baseman Maggie Viefhaus reached base on a double while senior catcher Roya St. Clair nailed a home run underneath the scoreboard in left field. The inning was capped off by senior pitcher Nikki Nemitz’s double, driving in the game’s tying and winning runs.
Up until the sixth inning, Michigan hitters had been stagnant at the plate. The Wildcats had built their 4-0 lead as the Wolverines managed just one hit — also from Evans, in the second inning — and reached base on balls just twice otherwise.
“I told them before the sixth inning … it doesn’t matter if they get 100 runs — we don’t have any,” Hutchins said. “I got on them sharply and told them they need to have better one-pitch focus. We need to make her put the ball to the plate.”
The momentum from Friday’s game at the plate carried into the next day against the Wildcats (29-23).
Clearly, with 12 hits overall and at least one hit in every inning but the first, getting consistent production at the plate didn’t plague Michigan in the second game.
But making timely plays as part of an explosive sixth inning remained one constant for the Wolverines.
Michigan went into the bottom of the sixth inning down 4-3, needing to turn some of the hitting production at the plate into runs.
And on the very first pitch of the inning, Nemitz came through once again, this time with a homer rocked into the top row of the right-field bleachers.
“I’m a pitcher, so when I’m batting I think like a pitcher,” Nemitz said. “I knew she was throwing that curve ball in on me, either the first or second pitch, so I was actually sitting on it. And it was the first, so I hit the first one — I was waiting for it.”
Junior outfielder Marley Powers came to bat immediately following Nemitz. The Owosso native received just her third start of the year as the designated player, and in the fourth inning, Powers had a home run of her own. In the sixth, she continued to spark the offense with a double.
Nemitz’s abilities at the plate, along with her start at the mound, allowed Hutchins to slide Powers into the eight spot in the lineup.
“That was apparently brilliant,” Hutchins joked, referencing the lineup change.
Though the five-hit, five-run sixth inning gave the Wolverines a comfortable lead heading into the final inning, the game was hardly a comfortable win.
The series sweep against Kentucky represents the second series in a row where the Wolverines have played in tough games, a significant change from the whippings they’ve put on sub-par Big Ten and Mid-American Conference opponents the last month of the season.
“You don’t ever want to get too high after a win, or too low after a loss — you don’t want to be on an emotional roller coaster,” Hutchins said. “Some days you have to grind and that’s what we’ve been doing.”