After dropping the first game of a weekend series with Iowa, the No. 1 Michigan softball team was completely on the ropes, about to fall out of first place in the Big Ten standings.
The crowd clung anxiously to the edges of their seats — it all hinged on the bat of senior designated hitter Alycia Ryan to complete the seventh-inning comeback.
Ryan — primarily a pinch-runner in her first three seasons and as unlikely a hero as anyone on the roster — delivered, crushing a walk-off single to deep right field to give the Wolverines (10-2 Big Ten, 42-4 overall) a much-needed 3-2 victory on Sunday afternoon. The victory helped the Wolverines stay tied with Indiana atop the Big Ten standings.
Michigan coach Carol Hutchins made a surprising lineup switch prior to the game, dropping senior first baseman Dorian Shaw — a former All-American — to seventh in the batting order and putting Ryan in the third spot.
“It really wasn’t about paying off,” Hutchins said. “But it really goes to show, statistically, we take a look every three weeks and (Shaw’s) production just has not been where it needs to be. And I’m hoping that ultimately it will inspire (Shaw) as opposed to deflate her, and that’s a choice that she makes.”
“(Ryan) is just doing her part and I knew she would just try to do her part. You can say it worked or whatever, but I don’t even look at it that way. I’m just trying to inspire and motivate my kids.”
Iowa pitcher Kayla Massey dominated Michigan for the first six frames — allowing just four hits and no runs. But the Wolverines finally awoke in the seventh, torching her for three runs on three hits.
Entering the seventh, Michigan trailed 2-0.
But sophomore second baseman Ashley Lane opened the inning with a double to right-center field and freshman catcher Caitlin Blanchard followed with a single. A walk of Shaw loaded the bases.
Then senior outfielder Marley Powers — who was benched in favor of Ryan less than a month ago — came in as a pinch-hitter and recorded a clutch sacrifice fly to close the gap to 2-1.
Two batters later, junior center fielder Bree Evans reached first base on a fielder’s choice with the bases full, tying the game 2-2.
Freshman left fielder Nicole Sappingfield followed by chasing a bad pitch and fouling out, leaving the game in Ryan’s hands for the first time in her four-year career. And as she’s done for four mostly-uneventful seasons, she did exactly what she was asked to do.
“I think it’s great that the coaches have confidence in me — that’s awesome,” Ryan said. “I’m so happy to be in the lineup and be contributing and I just tried to not change my mindset at all. As Hutch told me before the game, ‘Nothing should change. You just bat sooner.’ So that was kind of what I tried to do.”
Ryan’s heroics saved a Michigan squad that was outplayed for thirteen of the fourteen innings of play this weekend, allowing them to stay in first place in the conference. The Wolverines are now tied with Indiana atop the standings, as the teams split their season series earlier in the year.
A loss would have given the Wolverines their first series loss since 2009 at Northwestern and their first home-series loss since 2001 against the Hawkeyes.
But instead, Michigan split its series with Iowa (8-4, 24-17), following its 4-2 loss on Friday with the impressive 3-2 win Sunday at Alumni Field.
Sophomore hurler Stephanie Speierman (18-1) started the game but recorded a no-decision after conceding just a single run in four solid innings of work.
Hutchins went to junior pitcher Hilary Payne (3-0) in the fifth, who despite pitching just 14 innings all year, shut down a potent Hawkeye offense, allowing just one hit and one run in three innings to record the win.
Payne’s performance was overshadowed by the drama of Ryan’s walk-off hit, but it all would have been for naught if she hadn’t kept Iowa’s bats quiet after Speierman had clearly worn down.
“(Payne was) outstanding,” Hutchins said. I’m pleased (with her) … she’s been biding her time … She’s made good on her opportunity, and I’m sure she’ll see more.”
Things weren’t as dramatic on Saturday, though, as Iowa had control from the get-go.
Speierman took the first loss of her collegiate career, despite dealing a complete game and giving up just three earned runs. The Wolverines didn’t convert on offense, stranding 10 runners.
“Our pitchers’ job is to do their part and our hitters’ job is to do their part,” Hutchins said. “And our pitchers did fine. I think (Speierman) could have been better, but if she’s going to give up three earned runs and we’re not going to support her, she does her part.
“Hitters are supposed to stay focused on their deal and I wasn’t happy with our team chemistry. I thought they were a little bit all over the map.”
Sappingfield was 2-for-4 with two RBI, but that was all the support Speierman received. The loss erased the team’s one-game lead over Indiana.
Despite the loss, the story of the weekend was Michigan’s surprising heroes — Ryan, Payne and Powers.
“Bottom line is, you look at Hilary (Payne), she’s been biding her time,” Hutchins said. “You look at Marley (Powers), Marley hasn’t hit for weeks. And I kept telling her, ‘You know, you hang in there, because you’re going to get your chance.’
“These are kids who don’t ever play. And they make the most of any opportunity they get and we got upperclassmen right now who … get a zillion (opportunities). And I’d like them to learn from these kids. Get up for the opportunity. These kids rose to the occasion and I’m really proud of them.”