Michigan’s fourth-ranked softball team did not have timing on its side over the first three days of the National Fastpitch Coaches Association Leadoff Classic in Columbus, Ga.
Against No. 6 Missouri, junior pitcher Jordan Taylor limited her opponents to two runs, one earned. But in the same game, the Wolverine offense scored just one run of its own, and Taylor lost the game in extras, 2-1.
Against No. 9 Alabama, the Wolverine offense rallied late in the game and headed into the seventh inning with a four-run lead. But senior hurler Nikki Nemitz blew that lead in the top half of the final inning en route to a 10-6 loss.
The team played three other games and won each of them by at least six runs. And two of them were shut outs.
But there’s a simple reason one’s attention drifts to Michigan’s shortcomings thus far at the NFCA Classic: they occurred against the weekend’s toughest opponents. Large-margin victories over No. 18 Louisiana-Lafayette, as well as unranked Southern Illinois and Maryland, are important, but expected.
In a lengthy 60-game softball season, the teams that end up in the WCWS don’t lose many more than 10 to 15 games. So, invariably, World Series contenders tend to focus more on the swing matches in order to minimize their losses. In other words, they focus on the games that can realistically go either way — the games against other potential contenders.
Missouri and Alabama are two such contenders.
“We have one of the most difficult schedules in the country, and many college coaches have commented to me about the difficulty of our schedule,” Michigan coach Carol Hutchins said. “But my expectation is that we compete in every inning of every game.”
And while Michigan did drop both of its swing matches this weekend, the team showed that it could compete. It could have finished the weekend 4-1, maybe even 5-0. And more important, the team showed that it could compete against the elite southern teams that have been practicing outdoors since September.
On Friday, Taylor stymied the Tiger offense during regulation with the exception of a solo homer in the second inning. Senior third-baseman Maggie Viefhaus matched that with her own solo shot in the fourth for the only Wolverine run of the afternoon. In the first inning of extras, Missouri manufactured the go-ahead run with a fielder’s choice, handing Taylor her first loss of the season, albeit giving up just one earned run.
On Saturday, senior hurler Nikki Nemitz took the mound, pitched a solid six innings and headed into the seventh with a 6-2 advantage. But she let the lead slip away on a slew of infield hits, errors and a pair of homeruns before the ball was handed off to relief.
“She’s not real durable — she’s coming off an injury,” Hutchins said. “It’s really my fault that the game got out of hand. I needed to make a change, so that game’s on me.”
This time, Missouri was able to outlast Jordan Taylor. And this time, Nemitz’s arm crapped out one inning to0 early.
But ultimately, these losses came with a major positive for the Wolerines — they proved Michigan’s ability to compete in its swing matches.