The record crowd of 1,903 at Alumni Field stood in anticipation for the final out of the Michigan softball team’s doubleheader against Michigan State.
Disregarding the steady drizzle and biting wind, those in the stands chanted in unison, “Let’s Go Blue,” as junior pitcher Jennie Ritter stepped into the pitcher’s circle. Facing Michigan State’s Victoria Morache in the bottom of the fifth inning, Ritter struck her out looking with a curveball that fell back over the outside corner of the plate.
After a disappointing loss to Penn State last Friday, the No. 1 Wolverines (13-2 Big Ten, 48-4 overall) had a week of practice to regain their swagger. In its doubleheader against Michigan State, Michigan played with improved intensity and confidence, defeating the Spartans in both games by the mercy rule, 8-0 and 9-1.
“We’ve been ready all week to play,” junior Becky Marx said. “We only played one out of four games (due to inclement weather) last week, so all week we’ve been itching to play. We went out there on Sunday, and there was no way that we were going to lose those games.”
Michigan began the second game of Sunday’s doubleheader slowly. The Wolverine hitters went down one-two-three in the top of the first inning, but Michigan quickly found its stroke.
In the second inning, freshman Samantha Findlay started the Wolverine rally with a base hit through the middle of the field. After senior Nicole Motycka popped out, junior Grace Leutele walked. With runners on first and second, junior Stephanie Bercaw hammered a line drive that reached the fence in leftfield and scored Findlay and Leutele.
Holding onto a 2-0 lead, Ritter took the mound in the bottom of the second inning. But the Spartans were not ready to lie down and let the Wolverines win easily. With a runner on second, Traci Nicosia hit a groundball down the first-base line and into rightfield to cut Michigan’s lead down to one.
With Michigan State’s confidence beginning to grow, Ritter crushed its hope, striking out the next two Spartan batters.
“I knew that I had to hit my spots,” Ritter said. “I knew that we were ahead and that we were going to score more, so I wasn’t that worried. I didn’t feel pressure because I know our team and I know what we can do.”
Following Ritter’s momentum-stopping strikeouts, the Wolverines put the game away with six runs in the third inning.
After junior Tiffany Haas and freshman Alessandra Giampaolo reached base, senior Jessica Merchant laid down a sacrifice bunt to move the runners to second and third with just one out. When Findlay walked, Motycka drove Haas and Giampaolo in with a double into deep leftfield before Leutele scored Findlay with a sacrifice fly.
To secure the win, Merchant crushed a home run over the bullpen in leftfield to increase Michigan’s lead to 9-1 in the top of the fourth inning. With the lead, Ritter cruised in the fifth inning to cement a Wolverine victory.
In the first game, Ritter was even more dominant. She allowed just three Spartans to reach base while notching nine strikeouts. The Dexter native set the tone for the Wolverines during the doubleheader. While pitching both games, Ritter struck out 16 Spartans and collected two wins to improve her record to 24-1.
“She was outstanding on Sunday,” Hutchins said. “There was no doubt that I was going to come back with her in the second game.”
While the Wolverines already had a great deal of momentum when they faced their archrival, Michigan will enjoy additional motivation this week.
Last weekend, Michigan State defeated the Big Ten leader Northwestern, giving the Wildcats their first loss in conference play. With the Northwestern loss, the Wolverines still have a chance to win the Big Ten regular-season title with a sweep of the Wildcats this weekend.
“I just want our kids to come out and play like they did on Sunday, with no doubt that they are a good team,” Hutchins said. “We really had a lot of confidence — that’s all I want. The chips will fall where they fall. I just want to play ball.”
Even with the series against Northwestern looming, the Wolverines understand that they need to take care of business in their doubleheader against Western Michigan on Wednesday .
“We are ready to play Northwestern now;” Marx said. “We don’t want to wait a week. We can’t overlook Western Michigan. We’re going to look at Western Michigan as a good tune-up for Northwestern. We’re going to be pumped up.”